Important People of Cyber: Margaret Hamilton

50 years ago this week, humans first landed on the Moon. We all know the names of the men that took that giant leap, but most people don’t realise that it was the code created by Margaret Hamilton and her team that made that great feat possible.

Born August 17th 1936, Margaret had an affinity for mathematics from an early age and went on to study it at the University of Michigan in 1955. She then went on to earn a BA in the subject from Earlham College three years later.

Whilst supporting her husband whilst he studied law at Harvard, Margaret took a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked alongside Edward Norton Lorenz, a meteorologist and mathematician who is best known as the founder of modern chaos theory. At MIT, Margaret wrote software that would predict weather patterns. After that project she went onto work on the SAGE program where she began programming systems aimed at locating enemy aircraft.

It was also whilst she was at MIT that she coined the term ‘software engineering’. At first it was the butt of jokes, but eventually it was adopted by her peers.

‘There was no choice but to be pioneers’ – Margaret Hamilton

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In the 1960s Margaret got wind that MIT was on the lookout for people to help with a ‘mission to put a man on the moon’. Intrigued Margaret applied and thanks to her previous work on SAGE she was the first programmer hired for the project. She went on to head her own team at the Draper Laboratory which was dedicated to writing the software needed for Apollo 11’s two computers. One for the command module and the other for the lander ‘Eagle’.

Moon Landing go or no go? 

As Apollo 11 began its final approach towards the Moon, Margaret and her team’s software would be a major factor in the mission’s success. Three minutes before the lunar lander was due to reach the surface, Apollo 11’s guidance computer and on-board flight software averted an abort. The computers alarms were set off as they were overloaded by interrupts. Thanks to the software developed by Margaret’s team, the computers priority alarm displays interrupted the astronauts' normal displays to warn them that there was an emergency. A NASA computer engineer recognised the meaning of the errors giving him the confidence to give the ‘go decision’ to land. Without it, the moon landing could have been aborted.

“The mission was a system: part is realized as software, part is peopleware, part is hardware” – Margaret Hamilton

As well as working on the Apollo programme, Margaret also worked on Skylab, the USA’s first space station launched in 1973. After leaving MIT she went on to found two businesses and has received numerous awards for her work.

 For Further Reading

Important People of Cyber – Charles Babbage

Important People of Cyber – Hedy Lamar

Important People of Cyber – Joan Clarke

Important People of Cyber Sir Tim Berners Lee

 

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