Chm Blog From the Collection

Margaret Hamilton In Her Own Words

By David C. Brock | March 10, 2022

An Icon Shares Her Story

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.

That the software pioneer had moved from distinguished to iconic truly struck home for me in December, when I walked into the Smithsonian’s beautiful Arts and Industries building to see its newest exhibit, “FUTURES.” In this expansive exploration about imagining different futures for ourselves, now and in the past, one of the very first things a visitor encounters is a display about Margaret Hamilton and her remarkable contributions to the software of the Apollo Guidance Computer, which brought American astronauts safely back and forth to the surface of the Moon.

Margaret Hamilton as an icon for software and space achievement in the Smithsonian’s “FUTURES” exhibit, photographed in 2021. Photos by David C. Brock.

The photograph of her standing beside a tower of printouts of Apollo Guidance Computer source code has itself become an iconic image, widely used to illustrate many discussions of the history of women in computing. It is but a click away in the Wikimedia Commons for authors, photo editors, students, and exhibit designers alike.

This photograph and Hamilton’s persona as a symbol of technical achievement blend together in the iconography of a recent Lego toy set, “Women of NASA,” in which Hamilton was one of four featured figures.

A screenshot from the Lego website, March 2022.

The Computer History Museum has also played on Hamilton’s iconic status, incorporating her as an avatar guide in the Museum’s new Minecraft: Education Edition world, The Great Tech Story, drawing players into experiences about software.

A Remarkable Life

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.

During her work on Apollo, Hamilton became highly attuned to issues of error and reliability in the Apollo Guidance Computer software. She and colleagues did a careful study of the software errors that had arisen, scrutinizing and categorizing them according to cause. Avoiding these errors by circumnavigating their causes became the focus of her career forever after. She founded two companies to pursue this work, leading the development of new formal methods and languages for creating error-free and reliable software and systems. She continues this work at the time of this writing.

The Oral History

Behind all this accomplishment and iconography stands a very real, and very private person. For someone who has devoted her professional life to avoiding error and building reliability, it would seem that the ambiguities of history, memory, and expression are not entirely comfortable. She rarely gives interviews or speaks publicly about herself. Or perhaps it is simply the fact that whatever she says, people will be listening closely. In any event, 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. After careful review and annotation, the transcript and video of this oral history are now available online.

Below is a series of short selections from this oral history, highlights of Margaret Hamilton telling her remarkable story in her own words.

Math and Baseball

Margaret Hamilton describes her favorite classes and hobbies as a youth.

Abstract Thinking

Margaret Hamilton explains the attractions of abstraction.

Something Interesting

Margaret Hamilton reflects on her aspirations as a youth.

Earning It

Margaret Hamilton describes her most memorable job as a teenager.

A Smaller School

Margaret Hamilton describes her choice to attend Earlham College.

Crunching Numbers

Margaret Hamilton decides not to become a human computer.

Cucumber Sandwiches

Margaret Hamilton remembers a role model.

"You Do It"

Margaret Hamilton’s decisions about graduate school.

Poking Holes

Margaret Hamilton’s first job with computers.

Catching Hackers

Margaret Hamilton exposes the MIT hackers.

Because You're a Girl

Margaret Hamilton has a job interview in a bar.

The Seashore Program

Margaret Hamilton describes computer operator camaraderie.

Intrigued by Apollo

Margaret Hamilton decides she’d like to help put men on the moon.


Margaret Hamilton writes the code for an aborted mission.

Programming Priorities

Margaret Hamilton creates system software to juggle computing priorities.

Learning From Secretaries

Margaret Hamilton explains how she relied on her keypuncher.

Even Astronauts Make Mistakes

Margaret Hamilton remembers Apollo 8.

Emergency Landing

Margaret Hamilton’s computer alerts and the first moon landing.

Control Theory

Margaret Hamilton describes studying software errors.

Somersault Lessons

Margaret Hamilton explains how she solves problems.

We Have a Problem

Margaret Hamilton believes sexism is a cultural problem.

Margaret Hamilton’s full oral history (see the transcript or the video) is part of the Computer History Museum’s Oral History Collection, an invaluable open resource of over 1,000 remarkable stories. To learn more about it, and to begin your own explorations, visit the collection.


Thanks to Margaret Hamilton for her generosity of time and concern for this oral history, and to CHM’s Heidi Hackford and Max Plutte for their efforts on this blog post.

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Main Image Caption: Margaret Hamilton, delivering her acceptance speech for her 2017 CHM Fellows award.

About The Author

David C. Brock is an historian of technology, CHM's Director of Curatorial Affairs, and director of its Software History Center. He focuses on histories of computing and semiconductors as well as on oral history. He is the co-author of Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary and is on Twitter @dcbrock.

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