GPS tech market is $100bn but it may not have been possible without Gladys Mae West

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 10, 2023 1:18 PM EDT
Gladys Mae West
Gladys Mae West's contributions to the development of the GPS as we know it are being increasingly recognized. Photo Credit: NASA

There are very few modern inventions that are taken for granted like the global positioning system (GPS). The apps on your phone absolutely depend on it and you are most likely living a lot of your life with your smartphone.

Although it was developed as part of public service by US military scientists, the GPS tech market today is valued at nearly $100 billion by private investors and this figure may even quadruple by 2030.

Despite these mammoth facts about the technology, it was only until recently that the world got to know of the pioneering role Dr. Gladys Mae West played in the development of the GPS. But the story of her genius contribution may also have been taken for granted were it not for a short autobiography note sent to a sorority function.

The note revealed that her mathematical model laid the foundation for what would become the GPS orbit. The indispensability of her work makes better sense when it is explained that Dr. West plotted the path on which the GPS satellite travels.

“I just thought it was my work, and we’d never talk to our friends about work. I just never thought about it. I didn’t brag about what I was working on. But to see other people so excited about it, that was amazing,” Dr. West would tell The Guardian decades later.

West was born in 1930 in rural Virginia. Her family owned a small farm and she worked with them on the fields. But West had big dreams, although she respected the labor on which she brought up, she did not envisage herself picking tobacco, corn or cotton or working at the nearby factory. As she got more education, she realized that schooling was a way to get out of what seemed inevitable. West and her family tried to save money for college but it was a futile attempt.

A state college scholarship awarded to the two top students opened the way for tertiary education. West graduated first in her high school class and received the scholarship to attend Virginia State College. She majored in mathematics and was one of the few women in a class dominated by men. With the help of her math teacher, West was offered a part-time job babysitting to earn money for room and board.

She went on to work as a teacher after graduation. West saved money for graduate school and returned to the university for a master’s in mathematics. She worked as teacher for a while following her graduate degree. In 1956, she was offered a job at the Naval Surface Warfare Center where she programmed and coded computers. She was one of four Black employees and the second black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base.

At the base, West was tasked with collecting and processing data from satellites which would help ascertain their exact location. She worked alongside the programmers to develop the functions needed by the computers and analyzed the results. She also took part in an award-winning study that proved “the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune” in the 1960s. This information was vital in the development of GPS.

West became the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite able to monitor the oceans. She programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer, which was incredibly fast and could provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model. It was this mathematical model that laid the foundation for what would become the GPS developed by the United States government.

Today, global navigation systems have been developed by the Russians, the Chinese and a combined effort by European states. But Dr. West’s work was foundational in 1978.

Until recently, West’s tremendous contribution to the development of GPS technology wasn’t broadly known. But when she had to pass on word to her university sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, for an alumni function, she publicized for the first time the monumental place she occupies in the annals of human history.

For only Americans, there are more than 900 million GPS receivers used in phones, car navigation systems, commercial trucks and buses, and railroad operations. That is about three GPS receivers per a United States inhabitant. Planes, ships and drones rely on the technology too.

The GPS is the science of digital cartography. We need it for the everyday small things to the less often big things. One can be forgiven if they feel that the real value of the technology exceeds what investors say.

In 1998, West retired from a career spanning over 40 years. She embarked on pursuit of a PhD but unfortunately suffered a stroke that affected her hearing, vision, balance and mobility. She built up the resolve to continue with her education and earned her PhD in public administration and policy affairs in 2000 aged 70 years.

“[I always thought] that I had to be the best that I could be. Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women. I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could,” she told the BBC

The best she could give was more than enough in terms of a single person’s contribution to modern technological innovation. Even she would not have thought she was going to impact lives on this tremendous scale.