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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. It appears that she worked on refining satellite orbits and models of the earth. She did valuable work but is one of hundreds or thousands of 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 and an unrelated erroneous documentary about the origins of GPS was released.
Yes, the contributions of women and minorities have sometimes been ignored. But the reverse is starting to become the case. 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 my Dad’s Timation system. The last came from the AF/Aerospace system. Dr. West played no role in these decisions. She worked on interpreting data from spacetracking systems. My Dad designed two spacetracking systems. The order of priority should be clear.
This week, I was contacted by an Aerospace executive who started working on GPS in the late 1970s. His story of the origins of GPS differs greatly from that propounded by Parkinson and he scoffed at the award which was announced this week.
He said that, as far as he could tell, one of the execs at the Navy Lab where she worked was upset that no women were listed in their hall of fame. Thus, the story was propounded that this was another hidden figure. But it’s not true. She did good work but was not involved in the design or invention of GPS. Of course, most of the people writing these types of stories know nothing about it. Even well-regarded people like Simon Winchester get tons of details wrong.
These types of myths are infecting Wikipedia. Black women have done wonderful things, but inventing GPS is not among their lists of accomplishments. Another example of this myth follows. I responded and definitely did not convince at least one person.