Swapna Krishna

Jul 20th 2022

Hidden Figure Gladys West and Her Role in Creating GPS


The STEM fields are full of significant innovators who sadly never got the recognition they deserve. These people, many of whom are under-recognized female scientists, were pioneers in their fields. They achieved great things but didn’t receive due credit because they were women of color (and often specifically Black women). In the 1950s and 60s, many Black women worked as engineers and “human computers,” enabling the dawn of the space age and the era of modern computing.

Dr. Gladys West is one of STEM’s hidden trailblazers. She helped develop technology that contributed to the creation of the Global Positioning System, or GPS, which revolutionized modern society. Her contributions have been hidden for too long. We’re excited to discuss both Dr. Gladys West and the ins and outs of how GPS works.

How Does GPS Work?

When we’re going about our daily lives, we use GPS constantly but don’t really think about what it is. How does GPS work? The United States’ GPS relies on a constellation of 31 satellites in Earth orbit (other countries have their own GPS systems), according to the FAA. They work in concert with ground stations that pinpoint the precise position of these satellites at any given time. Receivers are what we utilize (our phones, car infotainment systems, etc.) to access the GPS network.

Receivers are able to listen for signals from this satellite constellation. After communicating with a minimum of four separate satellites, they can pinpoint a user’s location to within 7 meters, with about 95% accuracy.

Dr. West’s Background

Born in 1930 in rural Virginia, Dr. Gladys West was the daughter of Black sharecroppers and worked the fields as a child. She knew education was her way to a different life, so through hard work, she excelled and received a scholarship to college. She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and continued on to pursue a master’s degree. In 1956, she began her career at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory.

Her role was to collect and process data from satellites, which she used to help pinpoint their exact locations in space. This experience as a “human computer” helped Dr. Gladys West lay the foundations for the modern technology of GPS.

Dr. West’s Contributions to the Development of GPS

Dr. Gladys West continued to work for the Navy and move up through the ranks due to her hard work and diligence. She participated in an award-winning study that examined the motion of Pluto relative to Neptune, which helped her understand the movement of planetary bodies and how they act upon one another. She received a commendation from her department head in 1979, which led to her becoming a project manager. Dr. West oversaw Seasat, the first satellite to track the oceans, which helped her see how tidal forces affect the shape of the Earth.

As part of the Seasat team, she re-configured an IBM computer to calculate the geometric size and shape of the Earth much more efficiently. She was the first person to take all of the information we have on the Earth’s movement and the forces that act upon the Earth and input them into a computer to create a precise mathematical model of our planet.

Because the Earth is in constant motion, with gravitational, tidal and other forces acting upon it and changing its shape from one second to the next, it’s very hard to pinpoint the shape of the Earth with accuracy — and harder still to identify the precise location of anything on it. That’s why Dr. Gladys West’s contributions were revolutionary. She made it possible to create an accurate geodetic model of the Earth. GPS needs to take all of these seemingly small factors into account in order to work.

Though it might have seemed small at the time, Dr. West’s computer program is what paved the way for pinpointing a person’s location on the Earth through satellite tracking. It was this work that laid the foundations for GPS.

Are you interested in all things related to technology? We are too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.