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When you hear the name Gladys West, GPS Technology (Global Positioning System) should immediately come to mind. But have you ever heard of Gladys West?

If you ever catch a road trip movie from the 70s or 80s, you might see folks juggling with maps or asking for directions. But today, there's an app for that. Cars, planes, and even trains all rely on GPS. Have you ever wondered where it came from?

In part, it came from Gladys West, one of the chief architects of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Here is her story...

Gladys Mae Brown West was born in 1930 in a rural county south of Richmond, Virginia to an African American farming family in a community of sharecroppers. Coming into the world amid the Great Depression, and an African American in a segregated nation, you might not think her work could help change the world. But it did!


During her childhood, Gladys spent summers helping on her family’s small farm. Her mother worked on the farm as well and in a tobacco factory, and her father worked for the railroad.

When school was in session, it was a three-mile walk for Gladys, both ways, each day. She was happy to be in school because even at an early age, she could see her education as her ticket to prosperity.

After years of studying, she graduated as valedictorian from her high school in 1948, and earned a scholarship to Virginia State College, a historically black public university, where she majored in mathematics. Math usually was the most studied subject by men at her college. She graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1952.

After teaching math and science for two years in Waverly, Virginia, she returned to VSU to graduate in 1955 with a Master of Mathematics degree. After graduation, Gladys began another teaching position in Martinsville, Virginia.


In 1956, Gladys West was hired as a programmer at a Virginia naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. Gladys was hired as a computer programmer and a project manager for processing systems for satellite data analysis. During this time, she also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.

In the early 1960s, West began to analyze data from NASA’s Geodetic Earth Orbiting program, to create models of the Earth’s shape. Her work cut her team’s processing time in half, and she received a commendation.

Toiling long hours, West contributed to space exploration and later programmed the IBM 7030 Stretch computer to build an accurate geodetic Earth model. In order to generate this model, West needed to use complex algorithms to account for variations in the gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort the Earth’s shape. This work laid the foundation for the Global Positioning System (GPS) that helps the modern world go round.

West worked at the Dahlgren naval base for 42 years and retired in 1998. She later completed a doctorate degree in Public Administration at Virginia Tech through long-distance learning.


During her life, Gladys West had often experienced racism against African Americans. At first, she had turned down the job at the Dahlgren Naval Center due to its location and the requirement to interview. She was afraid they would reject her after her interview because of her race. Besides that, she did not have a car and couldn’t even find the base on a map!

Fortunately, for her and for the base, they reached out to her and offered her the job without the need to interview based solely on her qualifications. Her salary was enough to help her support herself and later her family and this was a very rare thing for a black woman at that time.

The prospect of moving to a rural neighborhood in a southern state was a very hard decision for an unmarried black woman like Gladys. The Brown vs Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional had been handed down. However, Virginia was still segregated at the time. Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan was still very active. But Gladys West felt she was on the right path toward her destiny, and she refused to let the ignorance of others influence her.

During her long career, the racism against African Americans that she experienced at the Naval Base resulted in disappointment for her. Her white coworkers received recognition and praise along with added privileges for their work. While she was working, she never received the recognition she deserved, and she was not granted projects that included travel and exposure.


Gladys Mae Brown met her husband, Ira, at the Naval Base. He was one of the only four black employees at the time. They were married in 1957. Gladys is 93 (at the time of this writing) and she and her husband and their family of three children and seven grandchildren still live in Virginia.

Interestingly, although now Gladys West and GPS technology may be recognized as going hand in hand, West prefers using paper maps over navigation systems. She feels more confident when she can see the road and where it turns!


  • In a 2017 message commemorating Black History Month, the commanding officer of the Virginia Naval Base, now the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, recognized Gladys West for her integral role in developing GPS and that her mathematical work had made a significant impact on the world.
  • In 2018, at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Awards, Gladys West won the award for ‘Female Alumna of the Year.’
  • In 2018, West was selected by the BBC as part of their 100 Women of 2018. 
  • In 2018, Gladys was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame. This is one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).
  • In 2021, West was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering. This is their highest individual honor. She was recognized as one of the ‘Hidden Figures’ part of the team who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems.
  • In 2022, Gladys West was added to the Walk of Fame at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington D.C. in conjunction with Black History Month celebrations. She is the first person of color to be added.

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