By Samuetta Hill Drew
March has provided me an excellent opportunity to highlight some well-deserving African American women, both past and present, whose intellect and ingenuity help make the world a safer place for us all to live in. Their faces are rarely shown, and names hardly ever mentioned, but their impact on our daily lives is insurmountable.
This week’s article will highlight Dr. Gladys West a native of Dinwiddie County, south of Richmond, Virginia. Both of Gladys’s parents were field laborers which was an honest job, but yielded little pay. Gladys was an intelligent young girl who understood education was her key to a better life. She was quoted as saying, “I realized I had to get an education to get out.”
Virginia State College had announced that the valedictorian and salutatorian that year would receive a full scholarship. She was a high school senior who wanted one of those scholarships badly. She worked hard and earned one of them. After school, she taught mathematics in Sussex County for two years before obtaining her master’s degree. Her intellect and expertise brought her to the forefront, and she became the second Black woman hired to join the Dahlgren, Virginia, naval base in 1956. She was one of only four Black employees.
There Gladys was assigned to collect location data from orbiting machines and input the data into giant supercomputers, while using early computer software to analyze surface elevations. She was an excellent programmer, and her expertise was in large-scale computers. She worked long days and nights recording satellite locations and complex calculations. She said the work was tedious, but “I was ecstatic” about the opportunity “to work with some of the greatest scientists.” Her talent and expertise were what led to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Where Gladys worked for many years with a team of engineers, she became the mastermind in the creation and calibration of the Global Positioning System commonly known as GPS which the entire world uses today. After that she was recommended by her supervisor Ralph Neiman as the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project. The project was actually the first satellite in human history to remotely sense oceans and large water bodies. Her diligence and efficiency on this project led Neiman to recommend her for a commendation in 1979. Her work was also applauded by Captain Godfrey Weeks, a former officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. He wrote, “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.”
West published a 60-page illustrated guide entitled: “Data Processing System for the GEOSAT Satellite Radar Altimeter.” She also published a Naval Surface Weapons Center guide.
West retired in 1998 and her work was never mentioned until one of her fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority sisters, Gwen James, read her short autobiography. James thought her story was amazing and shared her discovery with The Associated Press. Now we know the name of Dr. Gladys West and how she helps us Keep an Eye on Safety around the world.
As March ends Women History Month where my safety articles highlighted ingenious African American women whose intellect and creativity help keep us safe today, let’s say and remember their names – Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (Moderna Covid-19 Vaccine), Mrs. Alice Parker (patent precursor to the modern-day heating zone systems and thermostats), Mrs. Marie Van Brittan Brown (designed the front door security system with cameras, speakers, and alarm), and Dr. Gladys West (mathematical mastermind behind the GPS)!