An inspiring mother: Margaret Hamilton, the software engineering pioneer

Coding & Tech
Apr 12, 2021

Margaret Hamilton is an extraordinary person and an inspirational mother. As a young woman, Hamilton was not only a pioneer in software engineering and space exploration, but also a caring mother. She was in a close and loving relationship with her daughter, who accidentally found a serious and possibly life-threatening bug in the Apollo space program.

Margaret Heafield Hamilton (née Margaret Elaine Heafield) was born in 1936. She studied mathematics in the 1950s and got her start working on meteorological software at MIT. From there, she transferred to writing software for America's air-defense network. Her first task, given to her as a form of hazing, was to try to fix a program that no one could figure out, let alone make work. Part of the difficulty was that the author made all of his comments for the program in Greek and Latin. Margaret surprised her peers, by not only running the program successfully, but also making it print out its results in the two archaic languages.

By this point, Margaret's daughter Lauren was already born. It can be hard to raise a child while holding a demanding job. Luckily, Hamilton received much help from her husband James. In her own words, she was "fortunate to have a very modern husband who understood equality".

Margaret Hamilton next to a pile of books

Still at MIT, she joined the engineering team for the Apollo program (America's effort to put a man on the Moon) where she eventually became the head of development for all in-flight software. In her work, she pioneered many important concepts of software writing, perhaps most notably: a program's ability to detect and recover from its own errors.

Margaret often had to work in the evening or on weekends, and she regularly took Lauren with her. One day in 1968, she was running a computer simulation in preparation for the Apollo 8 mission (the first to take a human to the Moon and back without landing). During the simulation, Lauren started "playing astronaut" and hit keys on the control panel until the program suddenly crashed.

After analysis, Margaret realized that Lauren accidentally ran a program intended to be used before takeoff, but she did it while the simulated spaceship was already underway. She understood that the same mistake could also be made during the real mission, but her superiors didn’t let her correct it and simply declared that astronauts are trained never to make mistakes. Unluckily, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts ended up doing exactly the same during the real flight, causing much havoc and forcing the mission to be reconfigured. After that incident, Margaret was allowed to change the software so it would overrule the pilot if he tried to run the program at the wrong time. Had it not been for Margaret taking her daughter to work, the mistake might have caught everyone unprepared and caused a tragedy.

Margaret is one of the three people credited with inventing the term "software engineering". Writing programs was a new thing at that time, and traditional engineers, who worked with hardware, tended to look down on the discipline. She started saying "hey, we're engineering too" and finally on one Apollo meeting a top hardware expert agreed with her, giving legitimacy to the entire field.

The world today is much more digitally connected than in the era of early software engineering and space exploration. Most of us, parents or otherwise, might not deal with spaceships in our work, but we still must be comfortable with technology to enjoy its advantages fully. At Logiscool, we believe that confident digital literacy starts from a young age. Therefore, we offer a variety of courses, camps and workshops where children 6 to 18 years old can become familiar with various aspects of programming, robotics, internet security, digital media, gaming, and learning technological skills that will help them be more successful in their lives as adults. And who knows? Some of them might even end up writing software for space programs 😊

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