In honor of Black History Month, Mb Staffing would like to pay homage each week to an African American figure from history. Those we have selected are all figures who may not get as much attention as they deserve, whose story moves us, whose work inspires us, and whose legacy sets an example that we all hope to see emulated in our world today.
Gladys West is a mathematician and scientist. Her groundbreaking work in calculating the precise shape of the Earth paved the way for the development of the global positioning system (GPS). Overlooked for much of her career, her work has garnered more public attention in recent years. In 2018 she was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame.
West was born in Sutherland, Virginia, to a family of farmers and factory workers. She saw education as a way out, she received a full scholarship to attend Virginia State University. She studied mathematics, and upon graduating taught math and science for two years before pursuing her masters degree in mathematics.
In 1956, West became only the second Black woman to be hired at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia. She worked as a large-scale computer programmer and project manager for analyzing data from satellites. She took part in a widely acclaimed and award winning study that analyzed Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.
It was in the 1970s and 80s, however, that West began the work for which she is truly remembered. She programmed an IBM computer designed to calculate the shape of the Earth as precisely as possible. This was a massive undertaking, requiring ever-shifting algorithms to account for the constant movement of the oceans. It is this work that became the basis for the development of the GPS.
West retired from the Naval Surface War Center in 1998. In recent years, however, she has received a far greater amount of widespread public acclaim for her work. She admits that at the time she had no idea how great an impact her work would have on the world. The magnitude of her impact, however, might best be stated in this recent article in Forbes Magazine by Ethan Siegel: “GPS Only Exists Because of Two People: Albert Einstein and Gladys West.”