Next time you fire up Google Maps or ask your GPS how to get somewhere, say a word of thanks to Dr. Gladys West. Without her, we’d all still be using paper maps to find our way around.
Gladys Brown was born in Sutherland, Virginia, in 1930 to Nolan and Macy Brown, field and tobacco factory workers in a rural town populated mostly by sharecroppers. From an early age she understood that if she wanted to do more than work the land for the rest of her life, she’d have to study hard in school. She attended a small red, one-room school house where seven years of Black students were all taught together. She quickly showed unusual aptitude and her parents, wanting a better life for her, began saving money to send her to college.
But as happens to so many people, unexpected bills kept depleting their savings and Gladys quickly realized she would have to pay her own way. Like her parents, she tried to save, but it was slow going. Luckily, the state of Virginia announced plans to give college scholarships to the two top students from her year. Gladys buckled down and she succeeded in becoming Valedictorian of her high school class and earning one of the two full scholarships.
She chose to attend Virginia State College (now University), a historically Black university and majored in math because it was a respectable subject. To pay for room and board (which the scholarship didn’t cover), she took a part time job babysitting for one of her math teachers. In 1952, she graduated with her bachelor’s in mathematics and began teaching. A few years later, Gladys attended Virginia State, where she earned a master’s in mathematics in 1955.
After graduation, she was offered a job as a computer programmer and coder at Naval Proving Ground (now Naval Surface Warfare Center) in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1956. According to The Guardian, “this made her only the second Black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base. And she was one of only four Black employees.” This was during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and while she and her soon-to-be husband Ira West (they married in 1957) kept an eye on the goings on, they were barred from participating due to their government work.
So, just like in school, Gladys decided to form her own kind of rebellion by being the best worker she could and showing what Black people are capable of. One of her first major projects was the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator, an award-winning program using hundreds of hours of computer calculations, which often had to be double-checked for errors by hand, to calculate the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Gladys quickly rose through the ranks, receiving commendations for her hard work and becoming project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could monitor the oceans. At the same time, she took night classes and earned her master’s in public administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1973.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, from this “work on Seasat came GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface. By teaching a computer to account for gravity, tides, and other forces that act on Earth’s surface, West and her team created a program that could precisely calculate the orbits of satellites.” This laid the groundwork for the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Because of her skill in calculating complex mathematical equations, she also worked on other measurements that contributed to the accuracy of GPS.
In 1998 at age 68, Gladys was contemplating retirement when a sudden stroke forced her to stop working. However, she didn’t let that get in the way of her studies for her PhD in public administration and policy affairs, which she was awarded by Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2000 at the age of 70. Dr. West, now 91, is still alive today and participates in activities at the Dahlgren Protestant Chapel, with Gideons International and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and along with her husband, regularly mentors young people. In 2020, Dr. West released her memoir, “It Began with A Dream.”
Her story may have gone unknown if it wasn’t for a short biography she sent to her former sorority and a 2018 Associated Press profile, which kicked off interview requests from around the world. That same year, Gladys was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame, the only Black woman to be so honored. She has also been inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, named one of the top 100 Women by the British Broadcasting Corporation, was a Dominion Energy Strong Men & Women recipient and has had a Senate Resolution honoring her accomplishments.