ALD21: Dr Gladys West, Mathematician

Dr Gladys West

Dr Gladys West is a mathematician whose models of the shape of the Earth were integral to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). 

In 1956, West began work as a computer programmer at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, collecting satellite data and using it to calculate their exact position. She was only the second black woman employed there, and one of only four black employees.

West worked on the data-processings systems used to analyse altimetry data from satellites such as GEOS 3. In 1978, she became the project manager for SEASAT, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans, and used its data to measure ocean depths. Using an IBM 7030 Stretch computer, she developed complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal and other forces that distort the shape of the Earth, also known as the geoid. Her work significantly improved the precision of calculations used to model the geoid. 

In 1986, she published a technical report, Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter, which outlined how to increase the accuracy when estimating geoid heights and vertical deflection, which are important aspects of satellite geodesy, or the use of satellites to measure the dimensions of the Earth. West’s models of the geoid formed the basis of GPS.

In 2000, she finished her PhD in public administration and policy affairs, at the age of 70. In 2021, her contributions to science were recognised by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering which awarded her the Prince Philip Medal, their highest individual honour. 

Further reading

Posted in Ada Lovelace Day 2021.