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  • Sara Thompson

Meet a Pioneer of GPS Technology

By Sara Thompson

Image credit U.S. Navy, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Gladys West and Sam Smith looking over data from the Global Positioning System,

Special to the Enterprise


Gladys Mae Brown was born October 1930 in rural Virginia. When not in school she spent most of her time working on her family’s small farm. Wanting a different life than what her community could provide she devoted herself to her education. Graduating valedictorian of her high school class, she was awarded a full scholarship to attend Virginia State College, where she studied mathematics. She would receive her Bachelor of Science in 1952, after a brief time teaching math and science, would later receive a Master of Mathematics in 1955 from the same College.


The following year she was hired by the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia, as a mathematician. She was one of only four African American employees, and only the second woman of color hired. This is where she would meet fellow mathematician, Ira West, whom she married in 1957. While working as a project manager for processing satellite data, Gladys West would concurrently earn another Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in Public Administration.


In the 1960s, West was part of an award-winning study that proved Pluto’s motion in relation to Neptune. Her next project would be to analyze data from a NASA satellite altimeter, part of their Geodetic Earth Orbiting program. She later became project manager for a project involving remote sensing of oceans via satellite. West’s teams were so efficient they cut their processing times by half which led to new opportunities for her on other projects.


Between the 1970s-80s, she wrote and programmed computer code into an IBM 7030 to compute the shape of the Earth, taking into account variations of gravitation, tidal, and other forces. Her programming delivered an ellipsoid shape, with undulations known as a geoid. She published her data in a technical report, which was later used to improve accuracy of satellite geodesy. Her work was essential to creating the accurate GPS technology we use today.


After her retirement in 1998, she was not done learning and would go onto receiver her PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. She was induced into the US Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. In the same year she also won “Female Alumna of the Year” from Virginia State University (formerly Virginia State College) and was highlighted by the BBC’s 100 Women series, highlighting influential women in the 21st century. In 2021, she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the Royal Academy of Engineering.


Overcoming racism and sexism in her life, West is an inspiration to many. In her 90s, she continues to inspire others while giving interviews and mentoring youth in her community. Join Explorit this Saturday, February 10 as we celebrate Women and Girls in Science. Featuring women scientists in the fields of biology, geology, archaeology, astronomy, and more! Included with regular admission, this event will be from 10am-2pm, only on Saturday.

Explorit's coming events:

• Explorit is open Fridays from 1-4pm and Saturday and Sundays from 10am-2pm. The current exhibit is “Our WILD World”. Admission is $5 per person, free for Explorit Members and those aged 2 and under.

• Open Monday, Feb. 19, 10am-2pm. Admission is $5 per person, free for Explorit Members and those aged 2 and under.

• Now is a great time to donate and help Explorit continue to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow: https://www.explorit.org/donate

• A Membership to Explorit grants the recipient free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, summer camps and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits to visit other museums throughout the world. To purchase or for more information visit https://www.explorit.org/membership or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.

• Spring school programming book up fast so call now. For more information, please visit https://www.explorit.org/programs. To reserve call (530) 756-0191.


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