Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton

2017 Fellow

For her leadership and work on software for DOD and NASA's Apollo space missions and for fundamental contributions to software engineering


Margaret H. Hamilton was born in Paoli, Indiana, and studied mathematics at the University of Michigan and Earlham College. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1958 and planned to pursue graduate work at Brandeis University. Instead, Hamilton took a temporary position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she developed weather prediction software for professor Edward N. Lorenz on the Librascope LGP-30 and PDP-1 computers, noting at the time that programmers learned their profession by hands-on training (there were no formal computer science programs at universities yet).

From 1961-63, Hamilton worked on the massive US SAGE air defense system at Lincoln Laboratories, where she first began to take an interest in software reliability. “When the computer crashed during the execution of your program, there was no hiding. Lights would be flashing, bells would be ringing and everyone, the developers and computer operators, would come running to find out whose program was doing something bad to the system”.

During the time of the Apollo space missions, Hamilton led the team that created the on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo command modules and lunar modules. She was in charge of the Apollo (and Skylab) on-board flight software effort while also serving as Director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory. During this time at MIT, she wanted to give their software “legitimacy”, just like with other engineering disciplines, so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect; and, as a result she made up the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from other kinds of engineering.

With her Priority Displays error detection and recovery programs, she created new man in the loop concepts that provided the ability for the on-board flight software to communicate asynchronously in real-time with the astronaut within a distributed system of systems environment. This allowed the software (running in parallel with the astronauts) to interrupt the astronauts and replace their normal displays with priority displays; in order to warn them in case of an emergency during an Apollo mission. Such was the case during the Apollo 11 landing.

She culminated the Apollo effort by leading her team in performing an empirical analysis based on lessons learned from the development of the Apollo on-board flight software. These lessons were formalized into a theory for systems and software, which serves as the origin and much of the foundation of Hamilton's Universal Systems Language (USL).

Hamilton is the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. She is responsible for the development of the Universal Systems Language (USL) together with its integrated systems-to-software “Development Before the Fact” preventative life cycle and its automation, the 001 Tool Suite; all based on her mathematical theory of control for systems and software.

Because of it's preventative paradigm, with USL, instead of looking for more ways to test for errors and continuing to test for errors late into the life cycle, the majority of errors including all interface errors are not allowed into a system, just by the way it is defined.

For over five decades, Hamilton's methods have had a major impact on the field of software engineering up to and including the present day.

Hamilton received the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award (2003) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Barack Obama (2016).