Black History Month – Brilliant Black Women to Celebrate: Dr. Gladys West
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Dr. Gladys West, a mathematician and one of the so-called “Hidden Figures” who was lesser known for her contributions to inventing GPS. She was recently inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
Dr. West was among a group of women who worked on computing for the U.S. military in the 1950s and 1960s, just before the era when the military began to usher in a wave of electronic systems, according to a news release from the Air Force Space Command Public Affairs office. That group was later depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures.”
West began working at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory as a mathematician in 1956, where she also participated in an award-winning study that proved “the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune” in the early 1960s, according to the release.
That’s where West also programmed an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer that delivered refined calculations for an “extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized” for what would eventually become known across the world as the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit, the release also states.
West was quiet by nature and that kept people from knowing how instrumental she was in the development of the technology for most of her life. West admits that she had no idea, at the time, when she was recording satellite locations and doing accompanying calculations—that her work would affect so many.
“When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right,’” she says.
Dr. West’s work in woven into the very fabric of the way we live our lives. Next time you use that GPS on your phone or in your car, now you know who you have to thank for it.
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