Last June, I attended my monthly nonfiction writers meeting. Afterward, I spoke to the black gentleman sitting next to me. He mentioned that he’d just found out that a black woman invented GPS. I said that was strange since my father invented it. He chuckled and said that I was holding out on him. I looked it up and a Dr. Gladys West was the person. She worked on the Geoid. She did valuable work but is one of many people at that level. I dismissed it; errors about the origins of GPS are rife and in spite of my extensive writings about it I’m a relatively obscure person.
More recently, the articles about Dr. West have multiplied. Yes, the contributions of women and minorities have sometimes been ignored. But the reverse is starting to become the case.
Her work was valuable, but she did not invent anything. Invent is defined as to “to design or create something that did not exist before.”[i]
The Air Force award states:
Dr. Gladys West is among a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. Hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, she participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.[ii]
GPS was created in 1973. The major issues were the orbits, how time is transmitted to the receiver, and the nature of the signal. The first two came from Roger Easton’s Timation system (my dad). The last came from primarily from the Air Force/Aerospace Project 621B. Dr. West played no role in these decisions. She worked using data from space tracking systems. My Dad designed two space tracking systems. The order of priority should be clear.
Recently, there have been headlines such as “The Men Behind GPS Just Won a Prestigious Engineering Prize. Not on the Prize List: a Woman.”[iii] The article asked why Dr. West was not included. It could more properly have asked why no one who worked on Timation was included. There have been many other similar claims, especially in the black press.[iv]
The Timation Development Plan, published in March 1971, posits a navigation system with[v]:
- 27 satellites in 8 hour circular orbits at 55 degrees of inclination (appendix had 24 satellites at 12 hour orbits if atomic clocks were available).
- Accurate clocks would transmit time to the receivers. 4 satellites would provide 3D position.
- Ground stations in the U.S. or secure U.S. territories would update the satellite clocks and predictions of the satellite’s orbit (Dr. West was one of the people contributing to this).
- The satellites would transmit using both spread spectrum and side-tone ranging signals.
A comprehensive testing procedure was envisioned. Two Timation satellites had been built and another one was on the way (renamed NTS-1, it was launched in 1974 and carried the first atomic clock into orbit).
The first formulation of GPS were similar to this plan. Later, the system was changed to six planes rather than three (and the number of satellites, originally 24, is now around 31).
This is what an inventor produces. No such documents from Dr. West have been provided since none exist. She was not inventing anything; she was doing good work on one aspect of GPS.