Growing up on a farm in Virginia during segregation, Gladys knew education would be her ticket to freedom. But she never anticipated that her pioneering work would change lives around the world.
Gladys always knew she didn’t want to be a farmer. But, born in 1930 in Virginia, she still had to help harvest crops on her family’s small farm, with work starting before dawn and lasting well into the scorching heat of the afternoon. She hated it, but kept her mind on the building behind the trees at the end of the farm. It was her school, and even then she knew it would be her means of escape....
“I was gonna get an education and I was going to get out of there. I wasn’t going to be stuck there all my life,” West, now 89, told The Guardian.
What she could not have guessed was that this focus would shatter the perceptions of black women of the time and even lead to the invention of one of the world's most widely used innovations: GPS, the global positioning system.
West’s elementary school was a 40 minute walk away, through the woods, and the seven year groups, who were all black, were taught in one room. West's mathematical abilities quickly stood out and she was most definitely college material. However, her family could not afford the expense of college.
Then, one happy day, a teacher announced that the state was going to give a college scholarship to the two top students from her year. This was an opportunity not to be missed! “I started doing everything so that I would be at the top,” West says. “And sure enough, when I graduated from high school, I got one.” The scholarship allowed West to attend Virginia State College, a historically black university.
After graduating, she became a teacher, saving money for graduate school. She returned to the university a few years later and earned a master’s in mathematics and was offered a job at a naval base in Virginia as a programmer, becoming one of only four black employees at the base.
When she started her job, the navy was just starting to use computers. In those days, they were huge machines and Gladys was hired to do programming and coding. She was proud to get the job and, despite her intellectual abilities, she had long wrestled with the feeling that she was inferior and this drove her to work as hard as she could.
Her white colleagues were friendly and respectful, but initially didn’t socialise with her outside the office - something she tried not to let get to her. “You know how you know that kind of thing is going on, but you won’t let it take advantage of you? I started to think to myself that I’ll be a role model as the black me, as West, to be the best I can be, doing my work and getting recognition for my work,” she says.
The naval base was its own world, so it felt isolating at times. While West’s office was not racially segregated, a fierce civil-rights battle was unfolding across America, particularly in the south. She supported the peaceful protests, but was told that she couldn’t participate because of her government work. So she decided to focus on a quieter revolution, hoping that by working hard at the base she could chip away at the stigma black people faced.
She quickly climbed the ranks and gained the admiration and respect of her colleagues. In the early 60s, West took part in an award-winning study that proved “the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune”, according to a 2018 press release by the US air force. She then became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project - the first satellite that could monitor the oceans. She oversaw a team of five people. She programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer, which was significantly faster than other machines at the time, to provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model. This detailed mathematical model of the shape of the Earth was a building block for what would become GPS.
Looking back, West says she didn’t know she was revolutionising technology across the world. “You never think that anything you are doing militarily is going to be that exciting. We never thought about it being transferred to civilian life, so that was a pleasant surprise.”
West’s contributions went unrecognised for decades until one of her sorority sisters learnt about her career and started telling people about Gladys. Eventually, she was recognised as one of the “hidden figures” for her contribution to the development of GPS.
In 2018, West was inducted into the US air force hall of fame. Her work has at last been written into history. She knows it’s a feat that is rare for black women. But while West is incredibly proud of the work she did in helping develop GPS, she doesn’t use it herself - preferring to stick to paper maps. “I’m a doer, hands-on kind of person. If I can see the road and see where it turns and see where it went, I am more sure.”