If you've never driven your car into a lake, thank Gladys West.

She is one of the mathematicians responsible for developing the global positioning system, better known as GPS.

Like many of the black women responsible for American achievements in math and science, West isn't exactly a household name. But after she mentioned her contribution in a biography she wrote for a sorority function, her community turned their attention to this local "hidden figure."


Gladys West with her husband Ira West. Photo by Mike Morones/AP.

West was one of only four black employees at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956.

She accepted a position at the Dahlgren, Virginia, facility doing calculations, with her early work focusing on satellites. West also programmed early computers and examined the information that determined the precise location and elevation of satellites in space. Her data collection and calculations would ultimately aid in the development of GPS.

An example of the early computers in the 1950s. They would often fill entire rooms. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

West and her colleagues back then probably could not have speculated just how much their calculations would affect the world.

Pretty much every "smart" device — from cellphones to fridges to dog collars — has GPS capabilities these days. The technology has changed the way we play, work, navigate, and explore our communities.

"When you're working every day, you're not thinking, 'What impact is this going to have on the world?' You're thinking, 'I've got to get this right,'" West once said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Kenyan Maasai warriors relay the GPS coordinates of the location of two young lionesses they'd been tracking on foot. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.

West would continue her work until her retirement in 1998.

After more than 40 years of calculations and complex data analysis, West retired. And following a well-earned vacation with her husband, she suffered a major stroke. But during her recovery, she worked toward returning to school and earned a doctorate. Her go-forward determination led to her regain most of her mobility, and she even survived heart surgery and cancer years later.

While she may not be as well known as other women in STEM fields, West's contribution is undeniable.

At 87, West is working on her memoir and spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren. And according to her oldest daughter, West — despite the advent of GPS — still likes to have a paper map on hand.

Who are we to argue with greatness?

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