Margaret Hamilton

Sci-Illustrate
Nov 4, 2019 · 8 min read

Margaret Hamilton is a pioneering American computer scientist & software engineer who played a key role in writing #NASA software that made moon landing possible!

Margaret Hamilton, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximeno Lopez & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

We only see the astronauts walking on the moon making the “giant leap for mankind”, while the multitude of men & women that made it all happen remain invisible. On the 50th anniversary of moon landing we take a look at Margaret Hamilton’s (1936- present) legacy. Because, although machines took man to the moon, they ran on software built by Margaret Hamilton’s team.

Margaret Elaine Heafield was born on August 17th1936 in Paoli, Indiana, to Ruth Esther & Kenneth Heafield. She grew up with her two younger siblings in mid-western states of Michigan & Indiana. Margaret was interested in mathematics & started college at Michigan University. But she moved to the Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, where she met her future husband, James Cox Hamilton.

Margaret received her B.A. degree in 1958 in mathematics, with a minor in philosophy. In the summer of her graduation, she & James got married. Thereafter they moved to Boston, Massachusetts, since James was getting a law degree from Harvard Law School. Their daughter, Lauren, was born the next year.Margaret planned to pursue her previous interest & get a Ph.D. in abstract mathematics form Brandeis University. But those plans were put on hold.

In a simulator for Apollo mission. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Life took a new turn when Margaret started working at MIT in1959, in the famous meteorologist Edward Lorenz’s lab. It was the first time she saw a computer, but was quickly engaged in programing computers for weather prediction. What started off as a temporary job soon became her life-long career.

Later, between 1961- 1963, she moved to the MIT Lincoln Lab to work on SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) Project, where she was involved in writing software for the U.S. Air Force defense system. These computers would fill entire warehouses & were loud tedious machines. All learning was through trial & error as there were no courses that taught computer programming. Through this hands-on learning approach Margaret soon became proficient in developing software.

In 1964 Margaret saw a recruitment ad for software developer by MIT. Margaret jumped to the opportunity & joined the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now called Charles Stark Draper Laboratory). Programming was a male dominated field, & Margaret was not only the first programmer but also the first female to be hired for the project.

She worked on many manned & unmanned missions of NASA’s Apollo program. Margaret had a keen sense of identifying errors & debugging them in a program. Once she discovered an important fix in the code when her 6 yr old daughter was playing in her lab in after hours & mistakenly pressed a button on the simulator that resulted in system failure.

Iconic photo of Margaret standing next to the printouts of Apollo 11 software at MIT in 1969. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Margaret was the Director of the Software Engineering Division for the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission. She led a team in writing the onboard software for command & lunar modules. She included crucial fail-safe checkpoints of error detection & recovery in the program. Thus ensuring the safe landing & return of astronauts from their 1stever journey to the moon in 1969, & creating history.

“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.”

It was both an exciting & challenging time of many unknowns. Computer science was an evolving field & scientists were still trying to integrate software with hardware for a seamless interface.

Margaret in 1989. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Margaret realized that unlike other fields of engineering, the field of software development was not getting the respect it deserved. She thus coined the term ‘Software Engineering’, which is now a part of common parlance.

“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.”

Margaret left MIT to join the private sector in mid 1970’s. She established two companies, Higher Order Software & Hamilton Technology Inc., & currently is the CEO of the latter. Amongst the many awards, Margaret received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, highest civilian award in the U.S., from President Barack Obama in 2016.

Margaret Hamilton receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2016. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Lego figurine of Margaret Hamilton from Women in NASA series. Image Source: Lego website

Margaret’s 1969 picture standing next to the printout of Apollo 11 codes has captured popular imagination. Her legacy has been further solidified through the launch of Lego’s women in NASA figurine in 2017.

Today, Margaret is an icon for females working in tech & through her contributions she has shaped the course of human history.

1936- Born to Ruth Esther & Kenneth Heafield in Paoli, Indiana

1958- Graduated from Earlham College with a degree in mathematics, & marries James Cox Hamilton in the same year after graduation

1959- Joined Edward Lorenz’s lab at MIT

1961- 1963- Worked at MIT Lincoln Lab on SAGE Project of US Air force defense system

1964- Joined MIT Instrumentation Laboratory to work on NASA Apollo missions

1969- Team leader of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission for moon landing

1976- Co-founded Higher Order Software (HOS)

1986- Founded Hamilton Technology Inc.

2016- Received the Presidential Medal of Honor from Pres. Barack Obama

This scientist is part of a postcard box set, available here: https://www.sci-illustrate.com/wispostcards
Featured in the WIS Inspirations Wall Calendar 2020, available here: https://www.sci-illustrate.com/wis-calendars-2020/#wisINS

About the author:

Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:

Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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Sci-Illustrate Stories

A home for all our passion projects at Sci-Illustrate. A place where we invite you into our journey through art, science, and everything in between.

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Written by

Passion for science and art coming together in beautiful harmony to tell stories that inspire us

Sci-Illustrate Stories

A home for all our passion projects at Sci-Illustrate. A place where we invite you into our journey through art, science, and everything in between.

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