by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3202

Today, a quiet hero. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Growing up in rural Virginia in the nineteen thirties and forties, Gladys West was lucky. Surrounded by sharecroppers, her own family was fortunate enough to have a small farm. But West wanted more than a life in the fields, and saw that education was the road to success. She worked hard in school, graduating at the top of her class and earning a scholarship to Virginia State University, a historically black public land grant college. One of a mere handful of women in attendance, her skills were such that she was encouraged to get a degree in science or math. She chose math, and it was the gateway to a fascinating career.

After a brief stint teaching, she took a position at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, where she stayed for the next forty-two years. And among the many questions she addressed, one in particular came to define her professional legacy: what was the shape of the earth?

It's an important question when determining altitude. When we hear that a plane is traveling at thirty-two thousand feet above sea level, what exactly does that mean? Well, we take the average height of the water around the world and call that sea level. The problem is that because the earth isn't uniformly dense, sea level varies throughout the world. If we now compare the actual sea level in different locations to what we're calling sea level, the two may be off by hundreds of feet. Imagine floating in the middle of the ocean and being told you're three hundred feet below sea level - at least what we've chosen to call sea level.

To avoid such unpleasantries, scientists work with what's called a geoid - a mathematical model of the earth's shape. Geoids are defined by principles deriving from gravity and can be thought of as "the shape of the earth's surface." And once you know the shape of the earth's surface, you're finally in a position to talk about distance above the earth's surface.

Globe animation   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

At the Naval Surface Warfare Center West's duties led her to study and build mathematical models to better represent the shape of the earth. And in 2018, she was recognized with an award from the U.S. Air Force for her work programming "increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, for what ultimately became the ... GPS orbit." Gladys West had an important hand in the development of our present-day Global Positioning System.

Dr Gladys West   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

But the most compelling story is that of Gladys West the person. Hired in 1956, she was only the second black woman at the Naval Warfare Center. West gained increasing responsibility over the years as her talents were rewarded. She wrote technical specifications, worked hands-on with the earliest computers, and served as manager for the Seasat Radar Altimetry Project. On top of her remarkable career, she remains happily married to her husband of over sixty years, with three children and seven grandchildren. It all adds up to a most wonderful legacy.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Amelia Butterly. 100 Women: Gladys West - the 'Hidden Figure' of GPS. From the BBC News website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Dr. Gladys West: The Black Woman Behind GPS. From the website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Elevation for Beginners: What to Know About GPS Receiver Elevation. From the EOS Positioning System website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Geoid. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Mathematician Inducted Into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame. From the Air Force Space Command website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Nicholas Smith. The Difference Between Geoid & Ellipsoid. From the Sciencing website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Orthometric Height. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed January 22, 2019.

Glady West. Data Processing Systems Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter. A Technical Report of the Naval Surface Weapons Research Center, June 1986. See also: Accessed January 22, 2019.

What is the Geoid? From the NOAA website: Accessed January 22, 2019.