Gladys West was putting together a short bio about herself for a sorority function that recognized senior members of the group.
She noted her 42-year career at the Navy base at Dahlgren and devoted one short-and-sweet line to the fact she was part of the team that developed the Global Positioning System in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member Gwen James was blown away by the statement. The two had known each other for more than 15 years, and James 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.
“GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever,” James said. “There is not a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc. — that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
The revelation that her 87-year-old sorority sister was one of the “Hidden Figures” behind GPS motivated James to share it with the world. “I think her story is amazing,” James added.
West, who lives in King George County, VA, admits 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.’ ”
In a 2017 message about Black History Month, Capt. Godfrey Weekes, then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, described the “integral role” played by West.
“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of Earth) and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” he wrote. “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.”
As a girl growing up in Dinwiddie County south of Richmond, all Gladys Mae Brown knew was that she didn’t want to work in the fields, picking tobacco, corn and cotton, or in a nearby factory, beating tobacco leaves into pieces small enough for cigarettes and pipes, as her parents did. “I realized I had to get an education to get out,” she said.
When she learned that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she studied hard and graduated at the top of her class. She got her free ticket to college, majored in math and taught two years in Sussex County before she went back to school for her master’s degree.
She sought jobs where she could apply her skills and eventually got a call from the Dahlgren base, then known as the Naval Proving Ground and now called Naval Support Facility Dahlgren. “That’s when life really started,” she said.