I liked Mathematics in school and I was pretty good at it, but I can’t say that I had the mind of a great mathematician. As to being able to invent something, or create something of great mathematical value, I don’t know if my mind worked in that direction. The really great inventions take an extraordinary mind…one like that of Gladys Mae West (née Brown), an American mathematician who was known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS). I doubt if anyone alive today can say they don’t know about GPS. It has been a fundamental part of life since 1973, although most of us knew nothing about it then.
West was born in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia, south of Richmond. Her family was an African-American farming family in a community of sharecroppers. Her mother worked at a tobacco factory, and her father was a farmer, who also worked for the railroad. West knew she did not want for follow in her parents’ footsteps, and she knew that the only way out was to get a really good education. Family money was not going to be her way to college, so she knew she would need scholarships. Fortunately, the high school she attended gifted the top two students each year with a full-ride scholarship to Virginia State College (University at that time), a historically black public university. West worked hard and graduated in 1948 with the title of valedictorian. With the goal of graduating as one of the top two students behind her, West was a little unsure of just what to do next. She had never given much thought to what she would study…if she got to go to college, but she really had her pick, because she had excelled in all of her courses. Her teachers and counselors encouraged her to major in science or math because of their difficulty. West chose to study mathematics, a normally male dominated subject at her college. She also became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. In 1952, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. Following her graduation, West taught math and science at Waverly, Virginia for two years. Then returned to VSU to complete her Master of Mathematics degree. She graduated in 1955, and briefly took another teaching position in Martinsville, Virginia.
Her big break came in 1956 when she was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground located in Dahlgren, Virginia. These days it’s called the Naval Surface Warfare Center. West started her job as the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. West was a programmer in the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division for large-scale computers and a project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. While she was working there, she was also in the process of earning a second master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.
West was dedicated to her work. In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. She also began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape. She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. West consistently put in extra hours, cutting her team’s processing time in half. This extra time spent, earner her a commendation in 1979.
In the mid-1970s she began working on an IBM computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth…an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. She generated an extremely accurate model which required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. West’s data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS), which we all know about today. She was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. Today, West lives quietly with her husband, Ira. They have 3 children and 7 grandchildren.
When I think of the world’s explorers, I think back to the 1500s to maybe the 1700s, but there are still explorers, and probably places that no man has ever been, and some explorations are still going on. That is most likely because some places are very difficult to reach. American explorer Robert Peary knew that all too well. Peary had a dream. He wanted to go to the North Pole. For many years one thing or another came between Peary and his dream, but finally on April 6, 1909, Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos reached what they determined to be the North Pole. I can only imagine how elated they felt. It was the journey of a lifetime for them.
Peary, a US Navy civil engineer, made his first trip to the interior of Greenland in 1886. In 1891, Henson, a young African-American sailor, joined him on his second arctic expedition. Their team made an extended dogsled journey to the northeast of Greenland and explored what became known as “Peary Land.” Then, in 1893, they began working toward reaching the North Pole. In 1906, during their second attempt, they nearly reached latitude 88 degrees north, just 150 miles short of their objective. It would seem that they had the fever, because in 1908, they traveled to Ellesmere Island by ship and in 1909 raced across hundreds of miles of ice to reach what they calculated as latitude 90 degrees north on April 6, 1909. Although their achievement was widely acclaimed, Dr. Frederick A. Cook challenged their distinction of being the first to reach the North Pole. Cook, a former associate of Peary, claimed he had already reached the pole by dogsled the previous year. A major controversy followed, and in 1911 the US Congress formally recognized Peary’s claim over Cook’s.
Sadly, decades after Peary’s death, navigational errors in his travel log surfaced, placing the expedition in all probability a few miles short of its goal. I am glad he never knew. In recent years, further studies of the conflicting claims suggest that neither expedition reached the exact North Pole, but that Peary and Henson came far closer, falling perhaps just 30 miles short. On May 3, 1952, US Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher of Oklahoma stepped out of a plane and walked to the precise location of the North Pole, the first person to undisputedly do so. While he did step on the exact location, as confirmed by GPS or whatever measurement they used to confirm the location, it is my opinion that the accomplishment of Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher was nowhere near as amazing as that of Robert Peary and his team, who forged their way to the site, rather than being dropped on it.
As we were going through our parents things after the passing of our mother, we came across several very old maps of different states, and also one that I received of London during World War II. It occurred to me that my sisters and I are a real novelty these days, in that we know how to read a map, and plan out a route to travel to anywhere we would like to go. I’m sure there are other people out there who can read maps too, but in this day and age of the GPS, many people can’t either. I’m all for technology, and I have a GPS myself, but I can also read a map, and that is because of my dad, and his determination to teach us that art.
Every year our family would take a vacation. Sometimes we didn’t travel very far, like the year we took a Wyoming tour, in several separate legs over the course of two weeks. Other times, we traveled quite a ways, like the years we went to visit our sister, Cheryl Masterson, while she was living in upstate New York. As students go, we were a novelty too, because every year when the teacher asked the inevitable question about what we did over the summer, we always had a story to tell. At the time, we didn’t realize just how blessed…and how traveled we were, compared to other students in class. I always thought that everyone took a vacation, but that isn’t so. Many kids got to go visit a grandparent or some other relative, but going to the same place every summer isn’t really a vacation.
Our parents were so excited about our vacations every year, and we would often sit down and Dad would show us the route we were going to take on our trip. It was during these vacation planning sessions, that we learned to read a map, and that we learned to enjoy reading a map. The map was never confusing or complicated to us, because Dad showed us how to read it. We knew the difference between an interstate and a state highway. We knew how to pick out the larger cities, as opposed to the small towns. We knew what states and what towns we would be traveling through, and we knew how to find the sights that were located in the area that might be of interest. We knew how to find campgrounds in the area, and how to figure out how far we could easily travel in a days time. All these things are on a map, if you know where to look for them, and thanks to our dad, we did.
I suppose that many people wouldn’t think of a map as a treasure, but for my sisters and me, they really were. We all had to have some of them, and every time we look at them, they will serve as a reminder of those planning sessions, and of all those amazing vacations we took as kids, with our parents. I have no problem with the convenience of a GPS, and in the big cities my husband Bob and I travel to, they are a great help, but if my GPS ever failed, I could still get us there with a map. It is a legacy that our dad left for his daughters. It does make us a novelty, but it is something we are all proud to be able to do, and thankful that we had the parents we had. Their interest in travel, and Dad’s teachings on maps clearly enriched our lives.