MARGARET HAMILTON

Margaret Hamilton graduated from Earlham College in  1958 with a bachelors degree in mathematics and a minor in philosophy. After working teaching high school math and French, supporting he husband as he completed his undergraduate degree, Hamilton took a software development job at MIT in 1960, at the age of 24. During her first year at MIT, the lab she worked in began developing the guidance and navigation system for NASA’s Apollo 11. 

At the time, Hamilton was a working mother - already an anomaly for the 1960s - in a heavily male dominated field. By the time she was 29, she coined the term “software engineering” and was leading the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. Together with her team, they developed the code for the very first portable computer, laying the foundation for what we know as computer programming today. At the time, the field of software development was brand new and all information had to be discovered first hand and passed down from person to person. 

Hamilton’s team developed instrumental software for Apollo 11, allowing its computer to put low priority tasks on hold while prioritizing more important ones. Hamilton was known for attention to detail and rigorous testing, saying “The space mission software had to be man-rated. Not only did it have to work, it had to work the first time. Not only did the software itself have to be ultra-reliable, it needed to be able to perform error detection and recovery in real time. Our languages dared us to make the most subtle of errors. We were on our own to come up with rules for building software. What we learned from the errors was full of surprises,” 

As Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins approached the moon in Apollo 11, on July 20th 1969, the flight computer recorded a 1202 alarm, indicating that its software successfully overrode a command to switch the flight computer’s priority system to a radar system. This meant that the Apollo 11 was able to prioritize steering the descent engine and providing the crew with landing information, successfully landing the Apollo 11 on the moon instead of aborting due to computer problems. 

Hamilton went on to work on the rest of NASA’s Apollo missions, as well as America’s first space station, SkyLab. In 1986, she became founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. 

In 2003 she received an award from NASA, including the largest financial award that an individual had receive at the time. In 2016, Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

““I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it—and those building it—would be given its due respect and thus I began to use the term ‘software engineering’ to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering, yet treat each type of engineering as part of the overall systems engineering process. When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline.”

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