Dr. Gladys West is one of the pioneering ‘Hidden Figures’ whose work helped create the Global Positional System (GPS).
When someone says, “GPS” almost everyone knows what they are referring to. The Global Positioning System is used in cell phones, cars, and various devices all over the world. It can be counted as a device that changed world history from travel directions to defense systems. However, the woman behind its creation is not as well known.
While Dr. Gladys West isn’t a household name, she should be. Born in rural Virginia on October 27th, 1930, she constantly dreamed of going out in the world to do bigger and better things. Farming was all her family knew but Dr. West knew that her ticket to the big city life was through education. Dr. West graduated from Virginia State University and went on to work for the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Her work there on calculating the shape of the earth would later become the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS). This human history-changing research would go largely unnoticed by the public until 2018 when one of Dr. West’s sisters in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority read out a list of her accomplishments at an alumni meeting.
From there on Dr. West’s name spread. In 2018 she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame and awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering. She also received her doctorate from Virginia tech in 2018 at the age of 88. What was incredible about this is Dr. West dreamed of going to Virginia Tech when she was younger but could not due to her race.
She was a programmer and mathematician for 42 years before retiring. Today at 91 years of age Dr. West still does mapping and talks about what she overcame. She faced a great deal of what we now call “imposter syndrome” because of her background. Her status as an African American and a woman led her to question if she belonged. While there was no question she did, she makes her frustrations clear that she was not given as much credit and exposure due to her race and gender.
Dr. West is incredible to me for many reasons. One we share a similar background of being black women born in the southern United States. Although segregation has legally ended, I often found myself in rooms where I was the only person who looked like me. I also too often wondered if my financial status, race, and gender were the cause of so many surprises and side-eyes at my academic ability. Finally, Dr. West is incredible to be because she never once thought about giving up or quitting her job. She watched others take credit for what she did, ignore her, mistreat her, and still showed them that she belonged. The patience, kindness, and strengths she showed were truly legendary.
In Dr. West’s own words, “This little girl who grew up poor, during the great depression, and in separate and “unequal” conditions proved again and again that success begins with a dream and a vision of what you want to accomplish in this amazing life, and that dream can only become a reality through faith, persistent work ethic, and a personal commitment to always be your best.”
You can read more on the incredible life of Dr. Gladys West in her autobiography, “It Began With A Dream.”