Black History: Special Delivery!!

Gladys and Ira West
Gladys & Ira West

There is no doubt of the pivotal role GPS technology plays in so many facets of our lives. Gladys West, an African American mathematician, was part of the scientific and engineering team that developed Global Positioning System (GPS) technology during the 1950’s and 60’s. 87 year old Gladys West worked at the naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia for 42 years. West’s career started in 1956. She was the second African American woman hired at Dahlgren Naval Base. At the time, she was one of only four black employees; one of which, named Ira West, would become her husband. Gladys West’s work in the development of GPS technology, was discovered when she was preparing a bio for a sorority function. West is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

As a young African American girl growing up in Dinwiddie County, Gladys Mae Brown was determined that she did not want to work in the fields, picking cotton, corn, or tobacco like her parents did. She knew that education would play a key role in her having a better quality of life. West graduated at the top of her high school class and was awarded a scholarship to Virginia State College. She majored in Math and then taught for two years before returning to school for her master’s degree. After graduation, she began seeking employment and was offered a job at Dahlgren Naval Base.

West used supercomputers that filled several large rooms to do her work. It was her responsibility to gather location data from orbiting machines to analyze surface elevations. West and her team used the supercomputers to analyze the calculations using complex algorithms. The work was difficult. West was excited to be working with great scientists on such an important project. She often worked many long hours, so much, in fact, that she greatly increased her team’s productivity and processing time. She is credited with saving tax payers thousands of dollars. West retired from Dahlgren Naval Base in 1998. One of the things she hoped to accomplish in her retirement was completing her Ph.d in Philosophy at Virginia Tech. She was looking forward to writing her dissertation. However, five months after retirement, West had a stroke. Her hearing, vision, and balance on her right side, were impacted by the stroke. Despite the setbacks she incurred from her stroke, West persevered to complete her Ph.D. In addition to her stroke, West had quadruple bypass surgery and then was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011.

West finds it hard to fathom the tremendous impact that GPS technology is having on the world and the role she played in developing the technology. Though she does use GPS technology, West prefers a paper map and her own calculations. West and her husband reside in King George, Virginia