Margaret Hamilton: “I have learned to always ask myself why and to foresee the unexpected”

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Margaret Hamilton upon receiving the honorary doctoral degree from Francesc Torres, rector of the UPC

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Systems engineer Margaret Hamilton during her acceptance speech for the honorary doctoral degree from the UPC

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Investiture ceremony of Margaret Hamilton as an honorary doctor of the UPC

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FIB professor Núria Castell conducted the event and delivered the oration in praise of Margaret Hamilton

The experience of programming the software that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon 50 years ago “was at least as exciting as the events surrounding the mission.” This is how systems engineer Margaret Hamilton described her experience of this milestone in space exploration. During her acceptance speech for the honorary doctoral degree from the UPC, she explained what she learned back then.

Feb 04, 2019

On 18 October 2018, the American computer scientist, mathematician and systems engineer Margaret Hamilton was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) at an event that took place in the Auditorium of the Vèrtex Building in Barcelona. A pioneer in using the term “software engineering” 50 years ago during NASA’s earliest Apollo missions, Hamilton received this award appointed by the Barcelona School of Informatics (FIB) on the occasion of the School’s 40th anniversary.

The investiture ceremony was chaired by the rector, Francesc Torres, and was attended by Professor Núria Castell, who conducted the event and delivered the oration in praise of Hamilton.

Margaret Hamilton (Indiana, United States) was the director of the Software Engineering Division of the Instrumentation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she led the development of on-board navigation software for the Apollo Space Programme. Thanks to the design principles that she applied, it was possible to solve the problems in the navigational computer that the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission faced on landing on the moon.

"She has developed criteria, methodologies, languages and tools for ultra-reliable systems"

Hamilton was also a founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. (1986), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company that developed the Universal Systems Language for software design systems and the mathematical theory on which it is based, Development Before the Fact. On 22 November 2016, Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, delivered by US president Barack Obama, for the development of the Apollo missions software.

She was awarded the honorary doctoral degree in recognition of her pioneering use of the term "software engineering", 50 years ago. Her contributions have been key in the fields of informatics engineering and aeronautical engineering, as mentioned by Professor Núria Castell, a professor at the FIB, in her oration. She looked back at the professional career and the long list of achievements of the American scientist, known as the woman who took us to the Moon.

“Hamilton coined the term ‘software engineering’ while working on the Apollo missions,” highlighted Castell, and added: “In 50 years, this discipline has gained the same respect as any other engineering discipline.” From the beginning, as a pioneering software engineer, Hamilton was very concerned with possible errors and unexpected situations. “During her extensive professional and research career, she has developed criteria, methodologies, languages and tools for ultra-reliable systems,” said Castell.

Castell thanked Hamilton for all her contributions and praised her for her “key role in taking humans to the Moon, bringing legitimacy to software engineering, giving relevance to software reliability and helping to open the door of computer science to more women.”

The rector, Francesc Torres, gave Hamilton the mortarboard, the ring and the gloves as a symbol of the doctoral degree, and then she delivered her acceptance speech.

The first software to run on the Moon
“My background in software (software and everything related to software construction and maintenance) has been anything but traditional. It began before the discipline of designing and developing software was a field,” Hamilton reminded the audience at the beginning of her speech. The scientist defined her prior education as “a combination of learning from seemingly unrelated life and work experiences before and during college,” where she majored in maths and minored in philosophy.

The true motivation of this scientist has been - and still is - always asking herself “what if?” and looking for the right approach. Her curiosity to observe and question everything until answers made sense has always driven her efforts as a researcher, computer scientist, systems engineer and businesswoman. It all began when she was a child, inspired by her father, a philosopher and a poet, and her grandfather, a school director and a Quaker minister.

“Just as the astronauts were about to land on the moon, the flight computer became overtaxed!”

Hamilton highlighted that she was fortunate to “have had unique challenges, responsibilities and experiences in the workplace, even before high school,” and she quickly learned that “if you made mistakes you did not allow yourself (or others) to ever make them again.” Among the early projects on which she worked, she mentioned SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), “for which I developed applications in assembly language on the first AN/FSQ-7 (the XD-1), at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, to look for enemy airplanes. The machine was huge, the largest computer system ever built,” she explained. But this challenge was only the beginning of what would come next: the Apollo on-board software. “Each mission was exciting, but Apollo 11 was special,” she claimed. “We had never landed on the moon before. Everything was going perfectly until something totally unexpected happened. Just as the astronauts were about to land on the moon, the flight computer became overtaxed!”

The scientist stated that "the Apollo 11’s crew became the first humans to walk on the Moon, and our software became the first software to run on the Moon.” She also said that coming up with discoveries, new ideas and solutions was an adventure. “The software experience itself was at least as exciting as the events surrounding the mission,” she said.

Hamilton finished her speech by discussing on the reason for the issues related to developing software: “Trail blazing and taking risks in unknown territory led us among other things to the errors; the errors led us to a paradigm that leads ‘before the fact’ to the future. Educating people how to think, do and be in terms of the paradigm becomes the next real challenge,” she stressed.

“Thank you, Margaret, for blazing the trail as a woman, and for encouraging us to be brave and strive to take the lead in any races we are in”

At the closing of the ceremony, rector Francesc Torres remarked that this ceremony was the best way to close the celebration of the FIB’s 40th anniversary, and stressed that Margaret Hamilton played a key role in getting us to the Moon, allowing us to go beyond our human conditions and helping engineers to set new challenges. “Thank you, Margaret Hamilton, blazing the trail as a woman, and for encouraging us to be brave and strive to take the lead in any races we are in,” said the rector.

The award is also a tribute to a woman who worked in a totally male environment and promoted the presence of women in the field of computer science. The FIB proposed her appointment with the support of the Castelldefels School of Telecommunications and Aerospace Engineering (EETAC), the Terrassa School of Industrial, Aerospace and Audiovisual Engineering (ESEIAAT), the Department of Service and Information System Engineering of the UPC and the Department of Computer Science of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich).