Science History: Gladys West maps the future
She played a ‘pivotal role’ in a technology that’s become a household word. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
A brief item appeared on the Cosmos website on 6 March 2019 with the headlines “A mathematician, idolised”, and “GPS collaborator depicted in beautiful artwork”.
The accompanying illustration shows a posturised image of a woman, Gladys West, with the caption, “Mathematician. Instrumental in the development of the Global Positioning System.”
It’s a fine image but begs the question, who is Gladys West?
She was born Gladys Brown in the United States in 1930, into a rural Virginia farming family. Her mother worked at a tobacco factory and her father was a farmer who also worked for the railroad.
She finished on top of her high school graduating class and earned a full scholarship to Virginia State University, graduating in 1952 with a bachelor of science in mathematics. She was also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
In 1956 she went to work at the US Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, where she was the second African-American woman ever hired and one of only four black employees.
She retired from Dahlgren in 1998; along with working, she’d raised three children with her husband, Ira West, also a mathematician, and they had seven grandchildren.
One day she was writing a brief autobiography in preparation for attending a sorority function that recognised senior AKA members.
West told her story to reporter Cathy Dyson for a 2018 article in the Free Lance-Star newspaper, from Fredericksburg, Virginia.
As Dyson reports, in her sorority account West had included “one short-and-sweet line” explaining that she’d been part of the team that developed the Global Positioning System in the 1950s and ’60s.
This inadvertent revelation caught the eye of West’s sorority sister Gwen James, who decided her friend’s story deserved a wider audience. She told Dyson she’d “had no idea that the soft-spoken and sharp-minded West played such a ‘pivotal role’ in a technology that’s become a household word”.
After news of her past achievements spread, West talked to the New York Daily News in February 2019.
“‘I did hand calculations on a [mechanical] Marchant calculator’,” she told reporter Jared McCallister.
At the time, she said, her title was mathematician, “‘but just as I was coming to Dahlgren, they were getting a new computer in’, describing the IBM Naval Ordnance Research Calculator”, reputed to be “the most powerful computer of its day”.
“With the new computer, West successfully worked on a model to use satellites to precisely measure surface elevations of the earth and determine specific locations.
On 6 December 2018 West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
The Air Force Space Command press release called her one of “the so-called ‘Hidden Figures’ part of the team who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems”, referring to the 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the subsequent movie adaptation.
The release went on to explain how West “participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.
“Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimised for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”
For anyone who still distrusts GPS, bear in mind that West herself still refers to a paper map. Her daughter Carolyn Oglesby told reporter Cathy Dyson that her mother “‘says the data points could be wrong or outdated so she has to have that map’.”