If you are like me and trying to find the best taco joint in LA or are out on the trail and have lost your internet connection and all you have is the loaded topo maps on your phone to guide you through, you can thank this week’s lady badass mathematician, Gladys Mae West who, along with her team, literally changed the world as we see and traverse it.
Mrs. West’s accomplishments began with employment at the US Naval Surface Warfare Center during the 1970’s and 80’s for plotting Pluto’s motion in respect to Neptune as well as plotting the pathway of satellites for mapping out the geodetic model of the Earth. These calculations were input into an IBM “stretch” computer to create precise calculations of the layout of the Earth through algorithms created from data collected from the mapping of the Earth. West and her team were able to convert that into usable waypoints which gave rise to the current Global Positioning system (GPS) still in use today.
Mrs. West rose through much adversity growing up as a child of hardworking tobacco field workers who supported her efforts. She had a knack for mathematics and graduated top of her class in high school as valedictorian which secured her a scholarship to Virginia State College. From there she received her BA and MA in Mathematics and eventually landed her career job with the US Naval Surface Warfare Center. She retired from the USNSWC after 42 years of research and contributions to mapping how the Earth is distorted by gravity and tidal forces. Her model is what evolved into the Global Positioning System we all rely on today.
Mrs. West overcame much adversity and bias in her lifetime not only from being female in a male dominated world of mathematics but also as a person of color during a racially tense period in our nation’s history. She met those challenges head on and gained recognition for her intelligence, tenacity and fortitude. In 2018, Mrs. West was bestowed the highest honor by the Air Force Space Command by being inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame for her efforts in computing for the US military in a time before advanced electronic systems.
Mrs. West, along with several other prominent African-American women were featured in the movie “Hidden Figures,” which showcases the female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race of the 1960’s. Her fascinating story is definitely worth some further reading for an informative look on our nation’s badass women who have made a difference in our lives.
Deep knee bend and hats off to this remarkable woman who has helped guide me along the way to my favorite places and gotten me out of situations that I would have never been able to locate even with my old Thomas Guide.
NOTE: I’m doing this series of Badass Women of Automotive History because I love to learn and share about these amazing women who came before us and inspire badassery in Bronco Babes and women everywhere. Keep a look out for another Badass Woman of Automotive History next week!