Not only was Margaret Hamilton one of the first software engineers, but was also the first person to coin the term “software engineer”. Margaret studied mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College, Indiana, before accepting a job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, programming software to predict the weather.
In 1961, she joined the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Project at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, working on defence programmes for the US Air Force. Of joining this team, Margaret has said:
“What they used to do when you came into this organization as a beginner, was to assign you this program which nobody was able to ever figure out or get to run. When I was the beginner they gave it to me as well. And what had happened was it was tricky programming, and the person who wrote it took delight in the fact that all of his comments were in Greek and Latin. So I was assigned this program and I actually got it to work. It even printed out its answers in Latin and Greek. I was the first one to get it to work.”
Margaret went on to develop software for the Apollo missions, and made it her role to find potential bugs in the system, or errors that astronauts could make, to avoid catastrophes from happening. She often brought her young daughter, Lauren, to work with her on evenings and weekends. As Lauren once tried to play astronaut, she pushed a button on their simulator that crashed the system. Margaret was told that astronauts were “trained never to make a mistake”, but Command Module Pilot of Apollo 8, Jim Lovell, made exactly the same error as Lauren shortly after. Margaret’s team were able to fix the software within a few hours, and protective measures were built into software for all future Apollo missions.
In 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour a civilian can receive, by Barack Obama.