Meet Gladys Mae West, the hidden hero behind a system billions of people rely on today

Chaffin Mitchell

Millions of people around the world rely on GPS technology every day to navigate roadways, the sky and the oceans. What was once relegated to large paper maps, or sometimes multiple small maps, now works seamlessly on tiny smartphones or navigation devices at the touch of a finger.

And the development of that technology is thanks in large part to the intellect of one trailblazing woman.

Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed and originally used for military purposes, but these days the technology is used in ways that few could have predicted decades ago, including one of the developers herself, innovator and pioneer, Dr. Gladys Mae West.

Growing up south of Richmond, Virginia, in Dinwiddie County, West was motivated by living in conditions she knew she didn't want to create for herself in the future.

"We made our living by having a farm. I told myself I did not like being out in the sun working sunrise to sunset and all that, so I made good grades in all of my subjects," West told the U.S. Navy in an interview.

West recalled growing up as a young African American girl and attending a separate school from the "white school" and riding on separate buses.

"Many times we would get the old hand-me-down things from white schools; books that weren't new like their books were, but all of that helped to make us, I think, work harder because you know you are behind the eight ball to start with so you had to work harder," West said.

Dr. Gladys Mae West working in 1984. (Image/U.S. Navy)

Once it was time for West to attend college, she was told that she would be successful in majoring in math since she did well in all subjects. She listened to the advice and majored in math.

"I was always motivated by doing something new and completing something, having a goal," West said. "I tend to think for myself, [I'm a] little impatient with others who don't think the way I do."

West applied for jobs in the U.S. government and landed a job in 1956 working at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, as a mathematician and programmer.

When West was hired at Dahlgren, she was "the second black woman hired at the base and one of only four black employees." One of the other African American employees was Ira West, a mathematician whom she eventually married.

"I met my husband there too. I remember the first day I came to work, I didn't know anything as exciting. And we had three children, three," West said in an interview with the Navy.

Dr. Gladys Mae West and her husband, Ira West (U.S. Navy)

At the beginning of her career, West worked as a mathematician that verified tables, calculating everything by hand. Eventually, a computer was installed and she took the role of being its programmer.

"That was the biggest computer in the Navy at the time that they installed, so that was exciting because it was so fast and you could code much larger programs," West recalled.

West continued programming large-scale computers in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and worked as a project manager for data-processing systems used for information gathered by satellites.

"At the same time that we were coming to work here they were also bringing in a large computer and they brought in these mathematicians to learn to work this computer. We hadn't had any computer teaching or knowledge, so we had to master this job that they wanted us to do. So we had to learn how to program and code for this big computer," West said.

The results of the work she did eventually led to the creation of GPS.

Dr. Gladys Mae West pictured at Dahlgren with Sam Smith in 1985 reviewing data from the Global Positioning System she helped develop. (Image/U.S. Navy)

"My part in the global positioning system would be working more with over the water," West said. "A lot goes into the scientific computation to generate an orbit which is a database used in GPS. So the different people who did civilian applications learned to use the database that we generated and that was the foundation that GPS was built on."

West worked on verifying satellites' exact location by looking at data that was transmitted through computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.

"We started working with satellite data a lot because there are different stations, satellite stations placed all around the world and they would get data in and we would have to code algorithms to sort of verify the data that we were receiving, and then I worked some with geoid Heis because they were trying to measure exactly where the satellite was and where things were and so I did- geoid Heis had to do with the undulations in the water and so fine-tuning, it was fine-tuning that measurement, that distance from the satellite," West said.

In a 2011 interview West said, "I feel like I made a real good contribution to the accuracy of the Global Positioning System."

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After 42 years at Dahlgren, West retired in 1998.

Five months after retirement, West suffered a stroke that impaired her hearing and vision, balance and use of her right side, according to The Free Lance-Star, a Virginia-based newspaper.

"All of a sudden, these words came into my head: ‘You can't stay in the bed, you've got to get up from here and get your Ph.D.'," West told The Free Lance-Star in an interview at the time.

The health problems did little to slow her down. Later that year, WTLV-TV reported, West earned her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech at the age of 88. Also around the same time, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Hall of Fame, one of the federal organization's highest honors.

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