Archinauts XII – Margaret Hamilton

She took mankind to the moon

During a time when women were discouraged from seeking out technical work, a 24-year-old mathematics undergrad named Margaret Hamilton had got a job as a programmer at MIT. As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual; but as a spaceship programmer, Hamilton was positively far-reaching, she was practically the founder of the industry that is dominated by men today. Once the Apollo program was launched by John F Kennedy in 1961, the software world was on the verge of a giant leap. At the MIT Instrumentation Lab where Hamilton worked as lead software engineer, she and her colleagues were inventing core ideas in computer programming as they wrote the code for the world’s first portable computer.

But as the Apollo project unfolded, the significance of software in accomplishing the mission started to become clear. In 1965, Hamilton became responsible for the on-board flight software on the Apollo computers. By mid-1968, more than 400 people were working on Apollo’s software, because software was how the US was going to win the race to the moon. As it turned out, of course, software was going to help the world do so much more. As Hamilton and her colleagues were programming the Apollo spacecraft, they were also hatching what would become a $400 billion industry.

Also thanks to Hamilton and the work she led, notions of what humanity could do, and be, changed not just beyond the stratosphere but also here on the ground. Software engineering, a concept Hamilton pioneered, has found its way from the moon landing to nearly every human endeavour. By the 1970s, Hamilton had moved on from NASA and the Apollo program. She went on to found and lead multiple software companies. Today her company, Hamilton Technologies, is just a few blocks away from MIT, where her career began—a hub of the code revolution that’s still looking toward the stars.

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Hamilton, beside her is the code she wrote without which mankind could have not landed on the moon (1969).
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Hamilton and her colleague, standing in front of the computer.

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