In 1989, HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Senior Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering, agreed to the commissioning of a gold medal to be ‘awarded periodically to an engineer of any nationality who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education’, to be known as the Prince Philip Medal.
10th June 2021 Winner: Dr Gladys West
Dr Gladys West, whose mathematical modelling paved the way for the engineering innovation of GPS, is the first woman to win the Prince Philip Medal in the 30 years since it was presented for the first time in 1991. HRH The Princess Royal, Royal Fellow of the Academy, presented the gold medal via a virtual audience with Dr West at her home in the United States.
Our congratulations to Dr West for her achievements and her most recent acknowledgement. She truly is an inspiration to all women around the world!
In 1956 Gladys was hired as a mathematician by the U.S. Naval Proving Ground, a weapons laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, USA. Gladys West was admired for her ability to solve complex mathematical equations by hand. She eventually transitioned from solving those equations herself to programming computers to do it for her. One of her first major projects was work on the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator (NORC), an award-winning program designed (via 100 hours of computer calculations, which often had to be double-checked for errors by hand) to determine the movements of Pluto in relation to Neptune.
In 1978, West was named project manager of Seasat, an experimental U.S. ocean surveillance satellite designed to provide data on a wide array of oceanographic conditions and features, including wave height, water temperature, currents, winds, icebergs, and coastal characteristics. It was the first project to demonstrate that satellites could be used to observe useful oceanographic data.
Out of West’s work on Seasat came GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface. By teaching a computer to account for gravity, tides, and other forces that act on Earth’s surface, West and her team created a program that could precisely calculate the orbits of satellites. These calculations made it possible to determine a model for the exact shape of Earth, called a geoid.
It is this model, and later updates, that allows the GPS system to make accurate calculations of any place on Earth.
Dr West is often called one of history’s “hidden figures”: individuals, (often Black women) whose insightful contributions to science went unrecognised in their time because of their race or gender. In 2018 West was formally recognised for her contribution to the development of GPS by the Virginia General Assembly. That same year she was also inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame and named one of the BBC’s 100 Women of 2018, a list designed to honour inspiring women worldwide.
With thanks to britannica.com for Gladys West biographical information