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Margaret H. Hamilton is a systems engineer and NASA computer scientist from the United States. She created the Apollo space program’s on-board flight software while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hamilton designed her own software language and began her own company Hamilton Technologies. She received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for her programmer work on the Apollo missions. She is not the same Margaret Hamilton as the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

Birth and Education

Margaret Heafield was born on August 17, 1936, in Paoli, Indiana, to parents, Ruth Ester Partington and Kenneth Heafield.[1] Kenneth Heafield worked as a philosopher and poet and encouraged her to question the world. Her grandfather was a Quaker minister, head school master, and writer. Both greatly influenced her interests in mathematics and philosophy.[2]

Margaret H. Hamilton’s early work as a software engineer revealed her true intellect since the fields of computer sciences and engineering did not exist yet.

In 1954, Heafield graduated from Hancock High School and enrolled in the University of Michigan to study mathematics. She transferred to Earlham College and in 1958 she received a Bachelors in mathematics while minoring in philosophy. Heafield met her future husband, James Cox Hamilton, at Earldom and they married after he received his Bachelors.[3] She found employment as a high school French and mathematics teacher to help support her husband while he studied at Harvard University.[4]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Hamilton then intended to study abstract mathematics at Waltham, Massachusetts’s Brandeis University after being influenced by a female professor at Earlham, Florence Long. Instead, she began working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for Professor Edward N. Lorenz in 1959. Hamilton learned about software, systems, and multiple software languages, including binary and hexadecimal.[5] She assisted Lorenz in the development of a weather predicting software using PDP-1 and LGP-30 computers.[6]

The SAGE Project

Around the same time, Margaret H. Hamilton also worked for MIT’s Lincoln Lab on a more advanced computer program to track and predict weather patterns. The soon task turned into Project SAGE, short for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Air Defense System, developing anti-aircraft defense systems for the U.S. military during the Cold War Era. [7] Hamilton wrote the software for the first AN/FSQ-7 computer, the XD-1, used in Project SAGE.[8]

Apollo Computer Programmer

On August 9, 1961, the U.S. government granted the instrumentation lab at MIT a contract to design the control and guidance systems for the Apollo space program. They systems would be installed on the lunar module for the moon landing and the command module orbiting the moon and bringing the astronauts home.[9] Between 1963 and 1964, Margaret Hamilton prepared to resume her academic education in abstract math at Brandeis, but heard about the NASA contract.

Although NASA ignored Margaret H. Hamilton’s suggestion to create error-checking codes for even the most unlikely mistakes, the error happened and Hamilton saved the Apollo crew with her expert knowledge and capable team.

Hamilton quickly contacted MIT’s Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and asked to participate.[10] In 1965, she took over the programming for the Apollo computer software’s on-board flight systems. She worked with 400+ people by 1968. Hamilton’s main focus during this time was the endless hours of simulating different possible scenarios with the Apollo lander’s computer system. The code then went to the Raytheon facility where the program was assembled by threading copper wires through or around magnetic rings.

The tireless simulations and corrections to the programming done by Margaret Hamilton and the other software programmers proved worth it twice during the moon landing Apollo mission. In December 1968, only five days after takeoff, Astronaut Jim Lovell accidentally selected a relaunch program named P01 while flying. Hamilton’s young daughter, Lauren, made the same mistake while playing with the keyboard unit for the common module simulator and it caused the simulator to crash.

Hamilton worried this could happen during the mission, but NASA deemed this impossible since astronauts “were trained to be perfect,” and denied her request to add an error-checking code to prevent the malfunction. When Lovell committed the error, Hamilton and her fellow programmers spent nine hours coming up with a solution. They reprogrammed the computer’s navigation system to get the astronauts back to Earth since the error caused the computer to erase all the data it collected after the launch.

Another instance of successful computer programming by Hamilton and the other programmers occurred on July 20, 1969. Just as the lunar module prepared to land on the moon, the computer system became overwhelmed with standard calculations unnecessary to completing the very important task of landing. The asynchronous processing system designed by the MIT programmers caused the computer to focus all energy on landing and human reached the lunar surface.[11]

Hamilton Technologies and Later Years

NASA adapted the computer software designed by Margaret Hamilton to use in other missions, including the first digital fly-by-wire aircraft system, the space shuttle, and the first U.S. space station called the Skylab. In 2003, NASA awarded her the NASA Exceptional Space Act with the largest sum ever given to a single individual from NASA.[12] She served as Director of Software Engineer at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory where she developed a new mathematical theory, Development Before the Fact (DBTF) systems design. She based DBTF on empirical studies of the on-board flight software she made for the Apollo mission.

Hamilton left MIT to found her own company Hamilton Technologies, along with the several other software companies she founded since the 1970s. The company revolves around the DBTF paradigm and went on to create formal system languages used in defining System Oriented Objects. Hamilton Technologies also developed the 001 Tool Suite product line.[13] On November 22, 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her software designs used in the Apollo missions.[14]

Margaret H. Hamilton, the scientist, should not be confused with Margaret Hamilton, the actress, known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the famous U.S. movie, The Wizard of Oz.[15]


References

Bibliography

Kingma, L. (2016, July 20). Margaret Hamilton: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Took Us to the Moon. Futurism.[4]

Howell, E. (2016, November 29). Margaret H. Hamilton: Apollo Computer Programmer. Space.com.[5]

McMillan, R. (2015, October 13). Her Code Got Humans on the Moon - And Invented Software Itself. Wired.[6]

Wayne, T. K. (2010). American Women of Science Since 1900. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


Footnotes

  1. Wayne, 2010
  2. Kingma, 2016
  3. Wayne, 2010
  4. Kingma, 2016
  5. Kingma, 2016
  6. Wayne, 2010
  7. Howell, 2016
  8. Kingma, 2016
  9. Howell, 2016
  10. Kingma, 2016
  11. McMillan, R. (2015, October 13). Her Code Got Humans on the Moon - And Invented Software Itself. Wired.[1]
  12. Howell, 2016
  13. NASA. (2010, February 3). About Margaret Hamilton. NASA Office of Logic Design.[2]
  14. Howell, 2016
  15. IMDB (2017). Margaret Hamilton. International Movie Database.[3]

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