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Gladys West helped invent GPS.

Groundbreaking black female mathematician gives credit to God

Everyone who relies on GPS to find their way around owes a debt of gratitude to 88-year-old mathematician Gladys West.

For 42 years, West was employed by the U.S. Navy. As a mathematician, she would help lay the groundwork for many of the government’s orbital satellite projects.

“We didn’t do all the GPS stuff that’s for the car and all that,” she said. “We didn’t actually do that, but what we did was got the accuracy of where things were located all around the world and stuff, as a database.”

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West finished at the top of her high school class, earning her a full scholarship to what was then called Virginia State College, a historically black school in Petersburg, Va. She again finished at the top of her class and went on to complete work on her master’s degree. In 1956, she accepted a job at the naval support facility in Dahlgren, Via. The space race was just taking off, and computers were the wave of the future.

“It was really an excitement, you know?” she said. “They promised us that they would teach us how to communicate with this computer and all this stuff. I was ready to work hard with it.”


With the success of the space program, NASA was beginning to place satellites into orbit. West was tasked to help write and program code needed to process the enormous amount of data coming in.

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“You have a long equation and there are certain coefficients that go along with each term,” she said. “You had to generate them and get them accurate I programmed and coded all those equations and we checked them out by hand cases.. And they would pass them to the next level.”

In 1978, West received a commendation for her work and was promoted to project manager of the SEASAT Radar Altimetry Project, the first satellite that could collect data across the ocean’s surface.

Even after retiring in 1998, she stayed busy, completing her PhD in philosophy and writing her memoirs. For all of the accomplishments, commendations and recognition she has received over her career, West understands there is only one whom she can credit for the direction her life has taken.

“I think everybody should have God in their life,” she said. “I can just about see the complete circle, and I can look and see what he did and where he put me and where all along. And I would think it’s amazing that I didn’t understand it at the time, exactly what was happening, but he was there and he was doing it.”

How does GPS work?

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice

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