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Dr. Gladys West: The "Hidden Figure" Who Pioneered GPS Technology

This trailblazing mathematician built the geodetic model of the Earth that became the foundation for GPS.

If you rely on your GPS for directions, you can thank a mathematician whose little-known contributions to the mathematical modeling of the Earth recently earned her one of the U.S. Air Force's highest honors: induction into the Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame! Dr. Gladys West, like the "human computers" at NASA who became famous with the book Hidden Figures, began her career by performing the complex hand calculations required before the computer age. However, her greatest accomplishment was the creation of an extremely detailed geodetic model of the Earth which became the foundation for the Global Positioning System. Although GPS is ubiquitous today, West says that in the moment, she wasn't thinking about the future: "When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’" she says. "You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.'"

West was born in 1930 in a rural Virginia community of sharecroppers, but from an early age she had ambition to go beyond farm or factory work. "I thought at first I needed to go to the city. I thought that would get me out of the country and out of the fields," she remembers. "But then as I got more educated, went into the higher grades, I learned that education was the thing to get me out." West was valedictorian in her high school, which won her a scholarship to attend Virginia State College. There, she became one of only a handful of women studying mathematics. "You felt a little bit different," she later reflected. "You didn't quite fit in as you did in home economics." West taught for several years after graduation and then accepted a position at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956 — only the second black woman they had ever hired — analyzing data from satellites.

At first, that meant math on paper: "We would come in and sit at our desks and we would logic away, go through all the steps anyone would have to do to solve the mathematical problem." But when computers entered the scene, it meant learning how to program — and being ready to catch the computers' mistakes. "Nine times out of 10 they weren't completely right," she recalls, "so you had to analyze them and find out what was different to what you expected." West was involved in an award-winning astronomical study in the early 1960s that showed how Pluto moved relative to Neptune, and her department head recommended her for a new role as project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, involving the first Earth-orbiting satellite that could remotely sense oceans.

The Seasat project became the jumping off point for further satellite modeling of the globe, and from the mid 1970s through the 1980s, West worked on programming an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer with increasingly refined algorithms. She was then able to create an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, even factoring in details like gravitational and tidal forces that slightly change the Earth's shape. This model would later become the foundation for the GPS satellite system, which is widely used today for countless applications from navigation to communication. However, after West retired from her post in 1998, her contributions to GPS were largely forgotten.

West wasn't idle in retirement, although a stroke temporarily slowed her down. While she was recovering, she set a new goal: "all of a sudden, these words came into my head: 'You can’t stay in the bed, you’ve got to get up from here and get your PhD.'" She became Dr. West in 2018, thanks to a remote studies program with Virginia Tech. Then, her story resurfaced after she wrote a short biography for an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority event recognizing senior members of the group. Fellow member Gwen James, who had known West for fifteen years, was amazed to hear about her friend's career, and quickly started spreading the word: "I think her story is amazing."

In 2017, Captain Godfrey Weekes, then the commander of the Dahlgren Division, wrote an article for Black History Month about the "integral role" West played in the development of GPS, observing that "she rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy, and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data. As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come." On December 6, 2018, West was inducted into the U.S. Air Force's Hall of Fame in a ceremony in her honor at the Pentagon; the Air Force hailed her as one of "the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program." West says that she hopes her example will inspire another generation of female pioneers. "I think I did help," she reflects. "The world is opening up a little bit and making it easier for women. But they still gotta fight."

Books About Math-Loving Girls and Women

Solving The Puzzle Under The Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor

Solving The Puzzle Under The Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor

Written by: Robert Burleigh
Illustrated by: Raul Colon
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Marie Tharp's father was a mapmaker, but by the the time she was grown, there wasn't much left to map... or was there? In fact, people knew almost nothing about the ocean floor, so Tharp decided to map the mysterious depths of the Atlantic. Although she faced many challenges, including being turned away from research ships because it was "bad luck" to have a woman on board, Tharp took bits and pieces of data from many sources to assemble the first map of the ocean floor — and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, evidence that helped prove the theory of plate tectonics. This fascinating story is sure to inspire children to seek out even more of the world's mysteries.

One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

Written by: Demi
Illustrated by: Demi
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Clever Rani in this story shows that, with a solid understanding of math, it's easy to outsmart a selfish raja! Rani's village is starving, and the raja has more than enough rice to feed them all — but in his greed, he hoards it. When Rani does him a good deed and he offers to let her pick a reward in return, however, she asks for a seemingly humble amount: one grain of rice, doubled every day for thirty days. It doesn't seem like much... until you add it up. Kids will love the procession of animals that bring Rani's reward, from one grain in the beak of a bird to 256 elephants carrying enough rice to feed everyone. The vivid illustrations and poetic language make this a stand-out telling of this traditional tale.

Infinity and Me

Infinity and Me

Written by: Kate Hosford
Illustrated by: Gabi Swiatkowska
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Uma feels so small when she looks up at the night sky. How can she ever possibly imagine infinity? But as she wonders, she starts thinking of different ways to think about this enormous concept. Is infinity an endless racetrack? A number that grows forever? An ever-growing family tree? Can infinity even appear in an ice cream cone? This contemplative picture book takes a big idea and makes it accessible to budding young philosophers who, even though they're small, are already starting to think about things that never end.

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague
New!

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague
New!

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

As a 7-year-old during WWII, Raye Montague toured a captured German submarine and immediately set her sights on becoming an engineer. Little did she know that sexism and racism would challenge her dream every step of the way. Raye ended up working at the US Navy as a typist, studying engineering at night. One day, when all the engineers were sick with the flu, she astonished everyone by completing all of their work. She went on to become the first person to design a ship on a computer and the Navy's first female ship designer. This inspiring picture book from the Amazing Scientists series celebrates a pioneer who changed ship design forever.

Counting on Katherine

How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Counting on Katherine

How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Written by: Helaine Becker
Illustrated by: Dow Phumiruk
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Katherine Johnson loved to count, and despite the prejudices against both women and African Americans, she was determined to find a way to make her love of math into a career. As one of NASA's "human computers," Johnson hand calculated elaborate equations... including the trajectories that helped launch the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. When disaster befell the Apollo 13 mission, it was Johnson's flight-path calculations that brought the astronauts safely home. This inspiring biography of the mathematician catapulted to fame by Hidden Figures celebrates a love of math and encourages kids to follow their passions. For another picture book about Johnson and her colleagues, check out Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Written by: Laurie Wallmark
Illustrated by: April Chu
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Thanks to her mathematically talented mother, Anne Isabella Byron, young Ada had the opportunity to develop her remarkable intelligence. Years later, when she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, he named her the Enchantress of Numbers for her astounding mathematical skills. Little did either of them know that, when she designed an algorithm for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, she would be making history — by writing the world’s first computer program! With vivid artwork and intriguing anecdotes about Lovelace's genius, this picture book biography pays homage to a little-known but deeply influential figure in computing history.

Nothing Stopped Sophie

The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

Nothing Stopped Sophie

The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

Written by: Cheryl Bardoe
Illustrated by: Barbara McClintock
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

People in the 18th century thought learning math could hurt a woman's health, so when Sophie Germain was a child, her parents even took away her candles at night so she couldn't see to study. However, she was determined to follow her dreams, and spent six years working to prove a math problem that male scholars had declared unsolvable. When she developed an equation that could predict patterns of vibrations — which laid the groundwork for much of modern architecture — she became the first woman to win a grand prize from France's Academy of Sciences. This exuberant picture book biography captures the triumphant life of a pioneering and under-recognized mathematician.

Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition

Hidden Figures Young Readers' Edition

Written by: Margot Lee Shetterly
Recommended Age: 8 - 13

Before people could orbit the Earth or fly to the moon, there was a group of "human computers": dedicated female mathematician who used pencil and slide rule to calculate how to launch rockets. Four African-American women, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, were critical to the story of space flight — and yet their story was largely untold. In this young readers edition of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tweens will learn how these women, so little appreciated in their time, changed both NASA and America for the better. Younger readers can check out the picture book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race for ages 5 to 9.

Power In Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics

Power In Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics

Written by: Talithia Williams
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 4th century Alexandria to China's Qing Dynasty to the modern day, women have defied convention and made their mark in the world of mathematics! In this full-color volume, Dr. Talithia Williams shares the stories of groundbreaking mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists whose love of numbers have driven profound discoveries and phenomenal technological advances. For teens who have ever wondered just how far math can take you, this book provides the answer, along with plenty of inspiration from historical figures — and the women who are making history today.

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