An icon shares her story
July 21, 2022

Margaret Hamilton is literally iconic. She is also intensely private, having never given a full-length interview about her life and career. That is, until now. That Margaret Hamilton was deservedly renowned for her achievements in computing is clear: In 2016, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2017 she became a Fellow of the Computer History Museum.

The roots of this iconography reach down into the remarkable history of Hamilton’s engagement with software starting in the 1950s. Her first exposure to programming came at MIT, where she programmed meteorological simulations for Professor Edward Lorenz, one of the foremost figures in the development of chaos theory. It is Lorenz who popularized the notion of the “butterfly effect,” the concept that a small difference can yield a huge change within certain systems, like the flap of a seagull’s wing causing a storm, or the flutter of a butterfly’s wing determining the path of a tornado.

From there, she became a contributor to the SAGE system at the Lincoln Laboratory, working on software to distinguish the radar signature of aircraft from electronic noise. It was a matter central to the US military’s Cold War effort. From SAGE, she joined the effort at MIT to build the software for the Apollo Guidance Computer. This software would eventually prove central to the astonishing success of the Apollo program and achieving the goal of landing a human on the Moon.

The Computer History Museum had the rare opportunity to record a lengthy oral history interview with Margaret Hamilton in connection with her 2017 CHM Fellows award. The transcript and video of this oral history are now available online. A series of short videos from this oral history shares highlights of Margaret Hamilton telling her remarkable story in her own words.