ladys West knew from a young age that she didn’t want to be a farmer. But the mathematician, born in 1930 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, still had to help harvest crops on her family’s small farm. The hard work started before daybreak and lasted well into the blistering heat of the afternoon. She hated the dirt but, while she worked, she kept her mind on the building behind the trees at the end of the farm. It was her school, and even then she knew it would be her ticket to freedom.
“I was gonna get an education and I was going to get out of there. I wasn’t going to be stuck there all my life,” West, 89, says firmly, on Zoom in her home in Virginia.
What she could not have guessed was that this focus would shatter the perceptions of black women of the time and even lead to the invention of one of our most widely used inventions – GPS, the global positioning system.
The red schoolhouse, as West’s elementary school was known, was a three-mile walk away, through the woods and over streams. The seven year groups, who were all black, were taught in one room, but West quickly stood out.
Her parents tried to save some money to send her to college, but unexpected bills kept hitting the fund. If West was going to go to college, she needed to find a way to pay for it herself. She tried to put money aside, but became frustrated at how little progress she was making. Then a teacher announced that the state was going to give a college scholarship to the two top students from her year. It was her golden opportunity.
“I started doing everything so that I would be at the top,” West says. “And sure enough, when I graduated from high school, I got one.” The scholarship allowed West to attend Virginia State College, a historically black university.
She didn’t have much time to celebrate. While her tuition was paid, she needed money for room and board. Her parents could help for the first year, but she would need to find funding for the others. She confided in her maths teacher who, after seeing her potential, offered her a part-time job babysitting.
She quickly learned that, while she had been the best in her rural school, she had to put in work to keep up with students from bigger cities. “I was so dedicated that I didn’t care about missing the fun. But now I look back and I should have,” she says before laughing.
She decided to major in mathematics because it was a well-respected subject. It was largely studied by men, but she didn’t take much notice of them. “I knew deep in my heart that nothing was getting in my way.”
After graduating, she became a teacher, saving money for graduate school. She returned to the university a few years later and earned a master’s in mathematics. She briefly took on another teaching position after graduating. Then she was offered a job at a naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia. This made her only the second black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base. And she was one of only four black employees.
When she started her job, the navy was bringing in computers. She was hired to do programming and coding for the huge machines. She felt proud that she got the job, but knew the hard work had just begun. Despite her intellectual abilities and career success, West had long wrestled with the feeling that she was inferior. It was this feeling, deeply ingrained and felt, she thinks, by many African Americans, that drove her to work as hard as she could.
She still remembers her first day. The military base was grey, and people were mingling before starting work, laughing and drinking coffee. She met the man who would become her husband, Ira West – but refused to be distracted and at first largely ignored him. “I just got there and I was a serious woman. I didn’t have time to be playing around,” she says.
Her white colleagues were friendly and respectful, but initially didn’t socialise with her outside the office – something she tried not to let get to her. “You know how you know that kind of thing is going on, but you won’t let it take advantage of you? I started to think to myself that I’ll be a role model as the black me, as West, to be the best I can be, doing my work and getting recognition for my work,” she says.
The naval base was its own world, so it felt isolating at times. While West’s office was not racially segregated, a fierce civil-rights battle was unfolding across the country, particularly in the south, partly focusing on segregation. Outside the base, there were sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and places of transport. Her friends from college were deeply involved. West and her husband “supported what they were doing … and kept our eyes on what was developing”.
West was conflicted. She supported the peaceful protests, but was told that she couldn’t participate because of her government work. So she decided to focus on a quieter revolution, one she could continue inside the base. She visited the demonstrations and came back determined to commit herself to her work. She hoped that, by doing it to the best of her ability, she could chip away at the stigma black people faced. “They hadn’t worked with us, they don’t know [black people] except to work in the homes and yards, and so you gotta show them who you really are,” she explains. “We tried to do our part by being a role model as a black person: be respectful, do your work and contribute while all this is going on.”
West did just that. She quickly climbed the ranks and gained the admiration and respect of her colleagues. The work was hard and she had to deal with large datasets. “You had to be particular. You can learn the process, but then you have to really make sure you create the process just right, so everything would come out all right,” she says.
In the early 60s, West took part in an award-winning study that proved “the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune”, according to a 2018 press release by the US air force. In 1979, she received a commendation for her hard work from her departmental head. She then became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project; Seasat was the first satellite that could monitor the oceans. She oversaw a team of five people. She programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer, which was significantly faster than other machines at the time, to provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model. This detailed mathematical model of the shape of the Earth was a building block for what would become the GPS orbit.
While her team laid the groundwork for GPS, West took every opportunity the base gave her. She went to classes in the evening and gained another master’s degree in public administration, this time from the University of Oklahoma.
In 1998, aged 68, after spending more than four decades at the base, West knew it was time to retire, but she was terrified at the thought of not working. So after retirement she intended to focus on her PhD. But then she had a stroke.
“I was just sitting there working on the computer and all of a sudden I started spinning around,” West says. As soon as she left hospital, she started working on her recovery. “I never stopped one moment just to feel sorry for myself and say: ‘Oh boy, I’d never make it.’ I just said: ‘What’s next?’”
She would eventually finish her dissertation and gain her PhD in public administration and policy affairs in 2000 at the age of 70.
Looking back, West says she didn’t know she was revolutionising technology across the world. “You never think that anything you are doing militarily is going to be that exciting. We never thought about it being transferred to civilian life, so that was a pleasant surprise.”
“We always get pushed to the back because we are not usually the ones that are writing the book of the past. It was always them writing and they wrote about people they thought were acceptable. And now we’re getting a little bit more desire to pull up everyone else that’s made a difference.”
When West watched the film Hidden Figures, a drama about a trio of African American female mathematicians working for Nasa, she finally felt seen. “I really loved the movie and I didn’t know that that was going on with them. But they were doing something similar,” she says. It made her realise there were probably many hidden groups of black women making important scientific contributions across the world.
“I felt proud of myself as a woman, knowing that I can do what I can do. But as a black woman, that’s another level where you have to prove to a society that hasn’t accepted you for what you are. What I did was keep trying to prove that I was as good as you are,” she said. “There is no difference in the work we can do.”
She is appreciative of all the protesters that have come together in recent months to march for Black Lives Matter. “I’m hoping that, from that, we become better people, closer to the reality of who we really are, and the world becomes more united than it is now,” West says.
She hopes the call for justice on the street translates into concrete proposals that support more women and black people in science and mathematics. She wants more to be done to encourage underrepresented groups through scholarships and tailored training programmes.
But while West is incredibly proud of the work she did in helping develop GPS, she doesn’t use it herself – preferring to stick to paper maps. “I’m a doer, hands-on kind of person. If I can see the road and see where it turns and see where it went, I am more sure.”