Margaret Hamilton

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Margaret Hamilton (Software Engineer)

Margaret Elaine Hamilton (née Heafield; born August 17, 1936) is an American computer scientist, systems engineer, and entrepreneur. She served as the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, where she contributed to the development of on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo program. Subsequently, she established two software companies—Higher Order Software in 1976 and Hamilton Technologies in 1986, both located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hamilton has authored over 130 papers, proceedings, and reports, along with approximately sixty projects and six major programs. She is credited with coining the term “software engineering,” emphasizing its distinction from hardware engineering and other engineering disciplines, while recognizing their interdependence within the broader systems engineering framework.

On November 22, 2016, Hamilton was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in recognition of her pivotal role in developing on-board flight software crucial for NASA’s Apollo Moon missions. Initially, Hamilton had planned to pursue graduate studies in abstract mathematics at Brandeis University in Boston. However, in mid-1959, she joined the meteorology department at MIT, working under Edward Norton Lorenz. There, she contributed to weather prediction software, programming on the LGP-30 and PDP-1 computers at Marvin Minsky’s Project MAC. Her efforts significantly impacted Lorenz’s research in chaos theory. During this period, computer science and software engineering were still emerging fields, and practitioners gained expertise through hands-on experience rather than formal education. Margaret Hamilton

In the summer of 1961, Hamilton transitioned to a new project, hiring and training Ellen Fetter as her successor. She met her first husband, James Cox Hamilton, while attending college in the mid-1950s, and they married on June 15, 1958, shortly after her graduation from Earlham College. Following a brief stint teaching high school mathematics and French in Boston, Indiana, the couple relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where their daughter, Lauren, was born on November 10, 1959. Margaret and James Hamilton divorced in 1967, and she remarried two years later to Dan Lickly. Margaret Hamilton

Kendall, Florida, U.S.

Paoli, Indiana, U.S.

Name

Date of Birth

Birth of Place

Profession

Nationality

Education

Margaret Elaine Heafield

August 17, 1936

Paoli, Indiana, U.S

Software engineer

U.S. [3]

University of Michigan
Earlham College (BA)

Children

Ex – Spouses

Reltionship

Spouses

Reltionship

Awards

1

James Cox Hamilton

​(m. 1958; div. 1967)

Dan Lickly

(m. 1969)

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Career

In Boston, Hamilton initially planned to pursue graduate studies in abstract mathematics at Brandeis University. However, in mid-1959, Hamilton started working for Edward Norton Lorenz, in the meteorology department at MIT. She crafted software for forecasting weather, programming on the LGP-30 and the PDP-1 computers at Marvin Minsky’s Project MAC. Her contributions aided Lorenz’s research on chaos theory. During this era, computer science and software engineering were still evolving fields; instead, programmers gained expertise through hands-on learning. She transitioned to a different project in the summer of 1961, and recruited and trained Ellen Fetter as her successor.

SAGE Project

From 1961 to 1963, Hamilton contributed to the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Project at the MIT Lincoln Lab, where she served as one of the programmers who developed software for the prototype AN/FSQ-7 computer (known as the XD-1), utilized by the U.S. Air Force to identify potentially hostile aircraft. Additionally, she participated in software development for a satellite tracking initiative at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories. The SAGE Project emerged as an extension of Project Whirlwind, initiated by MIT to devise a computer system capable of forecasting weather patterns and monitoring their trajectories using simulators. SAGE was subsequently adapted for military purposes in anti-aircraft defense. Reflecting on her experience, Hamilton remarked:

“When newcomers joined the organization, they were typically assigned this program that nobody had been able to decipher or execute successfully. When I was new, they handed it to me too. The program was notorious for its complexity, and its creator took pleasure in documenting everything in Greek and Latin. Despite the challenges, I managed to make it operational. It even produced its outputs in Latin and Greek. I was the first to achieve this feat.” Her achievements on this project positioned her as a prime candidate for the role at NASA overseeing the development of Apollo flight software.

MIT Instrumentation Laboratory

Margaret Hamilton became aware of the Apollo project in 1965 and was eager to participate due to its “very exciting” nature as a Moon program. She joined the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which was responsible for developing the Apollo Guidance Computer for the Apollo lunar exploration program. Hamilton made history as the initial programmer recruited for the Apollo project at MIT and as the pioneering female programmer on the team. Eventually, she ascended to the position of Director of the Software Engineering Division. In this role, she oversaw the writing and testing of all onboard flight software for the Apollo spacecraft’s Command and Lunar Module, as well as for the subsequent Skylab space station. Additionally, Hamilton’s team was involved in designing and developing systems software, including error detection and recovery software such as restarts and the Display Interface Routines, which she personally crafted.

Hamilton actively sought hands-on experience at a time when formal computer science courses were scarce and software engineering programs were nonexistent.

Her expertise encompasses various domains, including systems design, software development, enterprise and process modeling, development paradigms, formal systems modeling languages, and system-oriented objects for modeling and development. She has contributed to automated life-cycle environments, methods for maximizing software reliability and reuse, domain analysis, correctness through built-in language properties, open-architecture techniques for robust systems, full life-cycle automation, quality assurance, seamless integration, error detection and recovery techniques, human-machine interface systems, operating systems, end-to-end testing techniques, and life-cycle management techniques. These methodologies aim to enhance code reliability by aiding programmers in identifying and rectifying errors earlier in the development process. Margaret Hamilton

Apollo 11 Landing

During a pivotal moment of the Apollo 11 mission, the Apollo Guidance Computer, alongside the onboard flight software, prevented a potential abort of the lunar landing. Just three minutes prior to the lunar lander’s touchdown, multiple computer alarms were triggered. According to software engineer Robert Wills, Buzz Aldrin entered codes to request altitude and other data to be displayed on the computer’s screen. This request surpassed the system’s capacity to support seven simultaneous programs, causing a series of unexpected error codes during the descent. The onboard flight software captured these alarms with priority alarm displays, interrupting the astronauts.

Margaret Hamilton had foreseen this scenario years prior. Her innovation of “priority display” introduced a risk that the astronaut and computer might lose synchronization at a crucial moment. As alarms blared and priority displays replaced normal ones, the transition to new programs behind the screens lagged. Hamilton’s solution was simple yet crucial: when encountering a priority display, count to five before taking any action. There’s debate over whether the astronauts inadvertently left the rendezvous radar switch on, triggering the alarms. Regardless, the computer faced overload due to interrupts caused by incorrectly phased power supplied to the lander’s radar. Program alarms indicated “executive overflows,” forcing the guidance computer to postpone some tasks. Hamilton’s team utilized an asynchronous executive, designed by J. Halcombe Laning, to develop asynchronous flight software.

Thanks to the flight software’s error detection and recovery techniques, including the “kill and recompute” restart approach, Hamilton’s priority alarm displays could interrupt normal displays to warn of emergencies. These displays gave astronauts crucial go/no-go decisions, vital for landing. Jack Garman, a NASA computer engineer, interpreted the errors presented by priority displays, affirming the mission’s continuation. Paul Curto, who nominated Hamilton for a NASA Space Act Award, hailed her work as the foundation for ultra-reliable software design. Reflecting on the incident, Hamilton emphasized the intelligence of the computer’s software in recognizing excessive tasks and taking recovery actions. She noted that without the computer’s ability to prioritize tasks and perform recovery actions, the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing might have been in jeopardy. Margaret Hamilton

Businesses

In 1976, Margaret Hamilton co-founded Higher Order Software (HOS) alongside Saydean Zeldin, aiming to advance concepts of error prevention and fault tolerance drawn from their work at MIT on the Apollo program. They introduced USE.IT, a product based on the HOS methodology they refined at MIT, which found success in various government initiatives. One notable application was its utilization in a project to formalize and execute C-IDEF, an automated rendition of IDEF—a modeling language originating from the U.S. Air Force’s Integrated Computer-Aided Manufacturing (ICAM) project. Margaret Hamilton

In 1980, British-Israeli computer scientist David Harel proposed a structured programming language inspired by HOS, focusing on subgoals and/or viewpoints. Additionally, HOS has been instrumental in formalizing the semantics of linguistic quantifiers and refining the design of dependable real-time embedded systems.

Margaret Hamilton served as the CEO of HOS until 1984, thereafter departing from the company in 1985. Subsequently, in March 1986, she established Hamilton Technologies, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This venture revolved around the Universal Systems Language (USL) and its accompanying automated platform, the 001 Tool Suite. These tools were developed based on her approach to proactive development for systems design and software development.Margaret Hamilton

Legacy

Margaret Hamilton has been recognized as the originator of the term “software engineering”. Hamilton recounts the genesis of this term: “When I initially coined the term, it was entirely novel in our field. For a while, it became somewhat of an inside joke. My colleagues enjoyed teasing me about my unconventional ideas. However, it was a significant moment when one of the most respected experts in hardware acknowledged during a meeting that he agreed with the concept. He affirmed that the process of software development should be treated as an engineering discipline akin to hardware. This wasn’t just about accepting a new term; it was about acknowledging our work as a legitimate engineering field in its own right.”

During the early Apollo missions, Hamilton introduced the term “software engineering” at a time when software development lacked the recognition accorded to other engineering disciplines, and was not considered a scientific endeavor. Hamilton aimed to establish software development as a credible engineering discipline, eventually gaining equal standing with other technical fields. The September/October 2018 issue of IEEE Software commemorates the 50th anniversary of software engineering. Hamilton also discusses the significance of “Errors” and their impact on her work in software engineering, proposing that her language, USL, could mitigate the majority of such errors in a system. Margaret Hamilton

In an article for Wired, Robert McMillan highlights Hamilton’s contributions at MIT, where she played a pivotal role in shaping the fundamental principles of computer programming while collaborating with colleagues to write code for the world’s inaugural portable computer. Beyond her crucial involvement in the Moon landing mission, Hamilton’s innovations extended to fostering greater inclusion of women in STEM fields like software, alongside fellow pioneer Grace Hopper, the inventor of COBOL. Margaret Hamilton

Publications

  • Hamilton, M.; Zeldin, S. (March 1976). “Higher Order Software—A Methodology for Defining Software”. IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering. SE-2 (1): 9–32. doi:10.1109/TSE.1976.233798. S2CID 7799553.
  • Hamilton, M.; Zeldin, S. (January 1, 1979). “The relationship between design and verification”. Journal of Systems and Software. 1: 29–56. doi:10.1016/0164-1212(79)90004-9.
  • Hamilton, M. (April 1994). “Inside Development Before the Fact“. (Cover story). Special Editorial Supplement. 8ES-24ES. Electronic Design.
  • Hamilton, M. (June 1994). “001: A Full Life Cycle Systems Engineering and Software Development Environment“. (Cover story). Special Editorial Supplement. 22ES-30ES. Electronic Design.
  • Hamilton, M.; Hackler, W. R. (2004). “Deeply Integrated Guidance Navigation Unit (DI-GNU) Common Software Architecture Principles”. (Revised December 29, 2004). DAAAE30-02-D-1020 and DAAB07-98-D-H502/0180, Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, 2003–2004.
  • Hamilton, M.; Hackler, W. R. (2007). “Universal Systems Language for Preventative Systems Engineering“, Proc. 5th Ann. Conf. Systems Eng. Res. (CSER), Stevens Institute of Technology, Mar. 2007, paper #36.
  • Hamilton, Margaret H.; Hackler, William R. (2007). “8.3.2 A Formal Universal Systems Semantics for SysML”. INCOSE International Symposium. Wiley. 17 (1): 1333–1357. doi:10.1002/j.2334-5837.2007.tb02952.x. ISSN 2334-5837. S2CID 57214708.
  • Hamilton, Margaret H.; Hackler, William R. (2008). “Universal Systems Language: Lessons Learned from Apollo”. Computer. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). 41 (12): 34–43. doi:10.1109/mc.2008.541. ISSN 0018-9162.
  • Hamilton, M. H. (September 2018). “What the Errors Tell Us“. IEEE Software. 35 (5): 32–37. doi:10.1109/MS.2018.290110447. S2CID 52896962.

Personal life

Margaret Hamilton, a renowned figure in computer science, has a sister named Kathryn. She encountered her first spouse, James Cox Hamilton, during her college years in the mid-1950s. They exchanged vows on June 15, 1958, shortly after her graduation from Earlham. Initially, Margaret taught high school mathematics and French at a public school in Boston, Indiana. Subsequently, the couple relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where they welcomed their daughter, Lauren, on November 10, 1959. Following their divorce in 1967, Margaret entered into marriage with Dan Lickly two years later.

Margaret Elaine Heafield was born on August 17, 1936, in Paoli, Indiana, to Kenneth Heafield and Ruth Esther Heafield (née Partington). The family later relocated to Michigan, where Margaret completed her high school education at Hancock High School in 1954. She commenced her mathematics studies at the University of Michigan in 1955 before transferring to Earlham College, where her mother had also been a student;  she obtained a BA in mathematics with a minor in philosophy in 1958. Margaret acknowledges Florence Long, the head of Earlham’s math department, for fueling her passion for abstract mathematics and her aspirations to become a mathematics professor. She attributes her inclination towards including a minor in philosophy in her academic pursuits to her father, a poet, and her grandfather, a headmaster.

Film and Television

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Television / TV

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Theatre

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Special Appearances

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Songs

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Dubbing

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Awards

  • In 1986, Margaret Hamilton was honored with the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award by the Association for Women in Computing.
  • In 2003, she received the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for her scientific and technical contributions. This award included $37,200, the largest amount ever granted to an individual in NASA’s history.
  • In 2009, she was bestowed with the Outstanding Alumni Award by Earlham College.
  • In 2016, Margaret Hamilton was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
  • On April 28, 2017, she was honored with the Computer History Museum Fellow Award, recognizing outstanding individuals whose computing concepts have transformed the world.
  • In 2018, she was granted an honorary doctorate by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
  • In 2019, Margaret Hamilton received The Washington Award. Additionally, she was conferred an honorary doctorate by Bard College. Moreover, she was honored with the Intrepid Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • In 2022, Margaret Hamilton was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

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