GPS Pioneer Dr Gladys West Made a Huge Difference in Our World – commentary

By Allan Golombek | Real Clear Markets

It was long overdue. This year, Gladys West was inducted into the U.S. Air Force and Space Pioneers Hall of Fame. West has earned renown as one of the Hidden Figures, a group of female, African-American mathematicians who played a key role in the U.S. space program, as depicted in a popular movie released two years ago. But that was just one of her accomplishments.

She was also a grandmother of the GPS system. Her life story is a tale of how anyone in a market economy can grow up to make an enormous scientific and economic contribution – despite the burdens of discrimination they may bear.    

West’s contribution to the development of GPS was pivotal. During the early 1960s, while working at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, West programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer model that delivered refined calculations for the orbit of a model that eventually became known as the GPS (Global Positioning System). West’s role was enormous, but so was her modesty.

Perhaps typical for an African-American woman in an era characterized by Jim Crow and patriarchy, West buried her accomplishments under a bushel. West’s contribution to GPS was only uncovered when a member of West’s sorority read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function.

What a contribution it was! It was a key marker on the road to the introduction of GPS, which has provided enormous benefits to U.S. national security and the global economy. Like many huge leaps forward, the development of GPS is easy to discount but hard to do without. It is difficult to believe that few of us had access to GPS until just a few years ago. But consider all of the activities it has made possible or advanced significantly.

GPS has made possible modern cell phones, by providing crucial synchronization technologies. It has dramatically advanced our capacity to track fleets. It has advanced the goal of weather analysis and forecasting, mining – facilitating the improvement of drilling, shoveling, vehicle tracking and surveying.

It has improved our ability to mine data, navigate, advance robotics, engage in astronomy and cartography, and conduct rescue operations, among many other things. When automated vehicles are introduced to the marketplace, it will be possible only because GPS provides the locations and routes for cars and trucks to function without a human driver. When your dog or cat gets lost, it may be possible to find it only because the chip you have imbedded in them is guided by a GPS system. It is possible to play many mobile, location-based games only because of GPS. Of course, the military contribution has been enormous.

The changes GPS systems have made in our economy and society are hard to notice, but they would be far harder to do without. They are possible only because of an education system that turns out people with the opportunity to develop it, a government that recognizes its potential value, and perhaps most importantly a free enterprise system that encourages commercial applications through a bottom-up economy based on risk and reward.

Gladys West has lived to see the contribution her intellectual baby has made to the global economy and the world. But it is only the beginning. Just as many may look at the initial stages of GPS in the early 1960s and fail to appreciate their importance, some may one day look at the state of GPS today, and see only the primitive beginnings of a powerful technology.Perhaps nothing speaks more volumes about any technology as the way we come to take it for granted.

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Comments

  • Richard Easton  On January 13, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    She did great work, but she played no role in inventing GPS. That was decided in 1973 based largely on the work of my dad Roger Easton. Models for mapping the earth are valuable, but GPS was based on decisions of what orbits the satellites would have, whether they would contain accurate clocks or have the time transmitted from ground stations, the placement of the ground stations, and the nature of the signal. Again, Dr. West did valuable work but played no role in inventing GPS.

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