A short bio on Margaret Hamilton

If you call yourself a software engineer, you have Margaret Hamilton to thank for that. She is credited with coining that term and was the lead software engineer for the Apollo Project. She also founded two software companies in 1976 and 1986.

In college, she developed software for predicting the weather. Her work contributed to research that would later become known as chaos theory. This is in 1959.

She then worked for the Air Force at the MIT Lincoln Lab. There she worked on a satellite and airplane tracking system called SAGE. The displays in the movie Doctor Strangelove were modeled on this work. The modern iteration of the system is still used today.

She is most known for her work on the Apollo Mission. There is a famous picture of her standing next to the code used in that mission. While working on the Apollo mission, she developed the key landing software that ensured humans could safely land on the moon. This system was very advanced, and many of the issues she had to solve were unresearched. Also, the entire system had to run on a tiny computer called the Apollo Guidance Computer. Stats for that are as follows, 2.048 MHz 15-bit wordlength + 1-bit parity, 2048 words RAM 36,864 words ROM. It weighs 70 pounds.

A list of the skills required in the development of this system is as follows (From Wikipedia) “systems design and software development, enterprise and process modeling, development paradigm, formal systems modeling languages, system-oriented objects for systems modeling and development, automated life-cycle environments, methods for maximizing software reliability and reuse, domain analysis, correctness by built-in language properties, open-architecture techniques for robust systems, full life-cycle automation, quality assurance, seamless integration, error detection and recovery techniques, man(sic)-machine interface systems, operating systems, end-to-end testing techniques, and life-cycle management techniques.”

That’s the entire field of software engineering.

After the Apollo and Skylab programs, she moved into the industry. One of the companies she founded developed the “Universal Systems Language.” This language was a solution to a common set of patterns and issues she observed during her work with the space program. This language allows the engineer to define the correctness of their software. Her work in the space program led her to realize that when people’s lives are on the line, the software must be correct.

She made people take software engineering seriously. Computers were not things to be hacked together, but complex systems to be designed. The safety of the people dependent on this software is all-important. I am not sure our complex digital world would be possible without her efforts. President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. She is still alive and well.