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CELEBRATING MARGARET HAMILTON: SOFTWARE ENGINEERING PIONEER

In the week of International Women in Engineering Day 2022, we wanted to draw attention to the remarkable work and legacy of Margaret Hamilton – an American engineer who first coined the term ‘software engineering’ and maintained that it should bean engineering discipline in its own right. Margaret has had a remarkable career, and has been influential in some of the most pioneering software developments of our time. After studying maths, she worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1959, where she started by developing weather-prediction systems – work that contributed to Edward Norton Lorenz’s publications on chaos theory.

Driving cutting-edge software development

Moving on to a project called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), Margaret developed software that was used by the US Airforce to determine friendly and unfriendly aircraft, and for a satellite tracking project. She had built a reputation as a problem-solver – refusing to give up until she found a solution. This dedication and application led to her moving within MIT to the Charles Start Development Laboratory, where she began to work on the Apollo Space Mission, ending up running the Command Module software team – at a time when software engineering still wasn’t recognised as a significant discipline.

“What’s really inspiring about Margaret Hamilton,” says Cascade MD Ben Barrass, “is that she forged a hugely successful career at a time when her area of specialty was very new and when it was still unusual to have a woman in an engineering team at all. But her work and her considerable worth was recognised and one of her solutions directly contributed to averting an abort of a Moon landing.”

“Margaret Hamilton had anticipated a situation where computer alarms were activated in the Command Module, and had designed some fail safes into the software,” says Uvena Yogarajah, a Stress Engineer at Cascade. “Having spotted the problem, she put considerable thought and effort into designing a solution, and her work on the Apollo Mission was called ‘the foundation for ultra-reliable software design’.

A lasting legacy and a life-changing impact

Margaret Hamilton founded two businesses after her work on the Apollo Mission and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Her influence on software engineering – not least developing the terminology – is hard to underestimate, and it’s great to celebrate her achievements and impact on one of the areas of engineering that is now fundamental to all our lives.

“When I first came up with the term [software engineering], no one had heard of it before, at least in our world. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. It was a memorable day when one of the most respected hardware gurus explained to everyone in a meeting that he agreed with me that the process of building software should also be considered an engineering discipline, just like with hardware. Not because of his acceptance of the new 'term' per se, but because we had earned his and the acceptance of the others in the room as being in an engineering field in its own right.”

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