"Just a Fairy Tale"
December 11, 2014 6:52 AM   Subscribe

"The engineers weren’t all boys with crewcuts, short sleeve oxford shirts, and narrow black ties. That’s just a fairy tale they told for a while." A short Medium post about a great picture of Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer in the Apollo Program, standing next to a taller-than-her stack of her code.

More about Hamilton from NASA, including a link to a presentation she gave in 2004.

Margaret Hamilton on Wikipedia.

A list of articles about the Development-Before-the-Fact approach and the Universal Systems Language developed around this approach through later work with her company, Hamilton Technologies.
posted by seyirci (31 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't want to take away from the awesomeness of either the picture, the story or the engineer, but it seems unlikely that that stack is all code. In my misspent youth, I had a heavily hand-annotated printout of Apple DOS 3.3 which was at most 1 cm thick. Apple DOS was about 12K in size, so one-sixth as big as the 72K of ROM that the Apollo Guidance Computer had. Even allowing for documentation or other forms of bureaucratic bloat, it's hard to imagine the 6 cm ballooning to almost 2 m.
posted by Slothrup at 7:06 AM on December 11, 2014


Huh. Looking at the list of her published papers, I realized that I had to read some of them for my Software Engineering classes in grad school but had no idea who she was.
posted by octothorpe at 7:14 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Slothrup: I haven't read the story yet (just seen the photo), but just to venture a complete guess it could very well be all the code she wrote over the course of the project, including first drafts and experiments, not just the final code. I could see NASA bureaucracy back then requiring that all versions of all code be kept in hard copy for X many years for auditing purposes.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:15 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Check out the Moon Machines DVD series, especially episode 3, which is about the Apollo Guidance computer. Here's a 4 minute excerpt, in which Hamilton explains how the rope memory worked.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:24 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


We have always been here, where ever here is.

On one hand it seems like a trivial statement, but on the other hand the fairy tale that we haven't been seems to pop up everywhere. Even people who are trying to defend women's place in, say, software engineering will commit this fallacy.
posted by muddgirl at 7:26 AM on December 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


She also played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Truly remarkable woman.

This is either mistaken or delivered with unsurpassed dryness, so just in case - they're different Margarets.
posted by GuyZero at 7:29 AM on December 11, 2014


Virtual AGC has scans and conversions of the source code for the Apollo AGC and other pieces of the Apollo project.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


The video that Brandon Blatcher linked to also mentions that women built the hardware that Margaret Hamilton's code ran on. It's sad how much the contributions of women to the Apollo program have been ignored or erased.

I loved seeing an Apollo Guidance Computer on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, literally in the shadow of a Space Shuttle. The AGC's not big or flashy, but nobody would've been to the moon without it.
posted by ddbeck at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I really liked the photo, but "boys" and "fairy tales" are unnecessarily dismissive. I wish Medium would decide if it's a venue for real writers or a blog-post assembly point.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


This reddit link describes the printouts as a "stack of printed output from early versions of software for Apollo 8/11, ca 1967"

Rewatching the Moon Machines clip and Googling about Hamilton is getting me a bit pissed off. She seems to have been a major figure in the Apollo program and programming, yet I've barely heard of her, despite a number of books I've read about Apollo.

Even in the Moon Machines clip, she's mentioned as the Director of the MIT program that created the software, yet she's shown demonstrating the "low level woman's work", while a male enginner giggles about you can say the same things about women today as you did back then. WTF?! She was only nominated for an award in 2003 because someone realized how instrumental she was to software engineering in general, yet never go recognition for it. What a goddamn shame.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:33 AM on December 11, 2014 [18 favorites]


... And yet 'women are bad at math' seems to be a tenatious steriotype
posted by edgeways at 7:42 AM on December 11, 2014


She went to Earlham College!

fight fight inner light kill quakers kill!
posted by leotrotsky at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2014 [9 favorites]


As is mentioned in the article, I can readily believe that a bunch of engineers would view writing the requirements for the code as "the real work" and writing the code as a more of an administrative or support function. "Why are they making a big deal about our typist?" you might imagine somebody wondering at the time.

This is especially ironic when you remember one of the things engineers like to say about themselves, namely that "Engineers do with 5 pounds what any fool can do with 10" or similar. Programming the AGC was a tight, tight squeeze. I've seen memos arguing for or against the removal of a function because it could save a few dozen bytes of memory.

Implementation and operations are always way more complicated and nuanced than the theorists like to believe.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


leotrotsky...I noticed that, too. Did you go to Earlham? One of the coolest, awesomest people I ever worked with/for was the copy chief at my first job out of college. She was an Earlham grad, as well. I miss you, Ellen!
posted by Thorzdad at 8:09 AM on December 11, 2014


There's a post from yesterday about Logan's Run . In it Auden posts the story of that one of the authors of the novel the movie is based on, William Nolan, was disappointed with the final script because it left out one of the major themes of the novel, "[N]amely, that a youth-dominated culture would be shallow and fadlike, that it takes experience, wisdom, and age to sustain a genuine culture."

People now in their 40s and 50s had the trade passed to them by the generation ahead, including a great many brilliant women like Hamilton. By excluding this experience from today's culture, ageism in software engineering becomes all the more damaging because there's little to no experience of women being team leaders among today's twentysomethings.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:19 AM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]


While we're talking about what's unnecessarily dismissive, I nominate the erasure of women from computer science and software engineering. The first computer programmer was a woman. The first compiler was written by a woman. Hell, the phrase 'software engineering' itself was coined by a woman, which I just learned from Hamilton's Wikipedia page.

I also just learned that she pioneered techniques for developing reliable software that I use all the time. It drives me crazy that I've been standing on Hamilton's shoulders every day of my professional life and I never even knew her name.

Thanks for this post, seyirci.
posted by amery at 8:23 AM on December 11, 2014 [29 favorites]


It's sad how much the contributions of women to the Apollo program have been ignored or erased.

"Erased" suggests a malicious act of will. But really, ask yourself, how many people can name a single one of the boys with crewcuts, short sleeve oxford shirts, and narrow black ties? The overall directors, administrators, supervisors? Other than the astronauts (and Werner von Braun), I can't identify anyone by name who contributed to the space program. Not to denigrate her contribution - God knows I couldn't have done it - but had she been male, she would be just as forgotten as the rest.

As to programmers in general, with respect, Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are pretty much to household names, at least in college educated households. Excepting those who parleyed the work into large fortunes, there's a mess of anonymous shoulders out there.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:23 AM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


"Erased" suggests a malicious act of will.

It doesn't have to be malicious. And it happens all the time. Any historic event has women involved in it (and people of color, and so on) who played critical roles of some kind, but the official images of the event almost never include them. Our image of Apollo engineers, the video clips you see in documentaries, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13: dudes. All dudes. (Unless there were women engineers in A13, I don't recall any offhand).

So we don't know their names, but we know they were dudes. But they weren't all dudes. But no one knows that.

I mean, it happens a LOT. After awhile, you need to ask why.
posted by emjaybee at 9:38 AM on December 11, 2014 [11 favorites]


I fucking love this picture of Hamilton in the Apollo, when she was working on programming it. She looks incredibly pleased to be there, and why not? It's the 1960s, and she's in a goddamn moon rocket. Rad!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:38 AM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't think the act of erasure is necessarily that Ms. Hamilton specifically is not lauded unlike male peers, but that the existence of women in general is not remembered. That's the "fairy tale" mentioned in the OP - that the modern struggle of women to "break into" computer programming (or any other male-dominated field) means that up until today women didn't really work in computer programming. That is erasure of the contributions of vast numbers of women.
posted by muddgirl at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


This reddit link describes the printouts as a "stack of printed output from early versions of software for Apollo 8/11, ca 1967"

There is another comment on Reddit that says the printouts are 'results from simulations' and not code. I agree with Slothrup that it can't be just code printouts.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 9:44 AM on December 11, 2014


The women in CS drum is one that I have been beating for the better part of my life, partly because my mom was a programmer, basically bootstrapped her own startup in 91, sold that company and is now a CEO.

Planet Money did a thing recently on how this happened that was really interesting and tied to the marketing of the first computers to boys. Id link to it but I'm on my phone.
posted by KernalM at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


. I wish Medium would decide if it's a venue for real writers or a blog-post assembly point.

What? Its a domain for writing. That's like saying "I wish metafilter would decide if its a venue for thoughtfully curated long form posts or single link YouTubes".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]


I don't want to thread-sit, but I think there might be value-added to the discussion if I describe why that quote struck me forcefully enough for me to open the post with it.

So I went to grad school in a very large state school less than 10 miles down the road from one of NASA's Flight Centers. We've got an auditorium named for Judith Resnick, who also got her degree there. About ten years ago the Electrical Engineering Department celebrated its centennial. There was some redecorating of the corridors and seminar rooms as a result, and they hung old photographs of students (I presume) in labs (I could tell).

Every. Single. Student. In those pictures were... wait for it... boys in white short-sleeved Oxford shirts and narrow dark-colored ties.

I know I'm not the only one who noticed and was increasingly bugged by it, because in two weeks or so all those pictures were replaced by old pictures of buildings and campus grounds.

Now I can't really blame the archivists who chose which pictures to hang, because while I can't believe there wasn't a single female student even after WWII, I can easily believe no one thought of photographing them for what was obviously showcase-the-department pictures. And it wasn't only my school. I am so lucky, so incredibly lucky, because my childhood mental image for ”electrical engineer” (or, for that matter, for ”woman in technology”) mapped to ”Mom,” and as a result I've worn some incredibly thick blinders to how much that isn't the normal mental viewpoint for everyone else out there. And the vast... I mean vast... majority of images available about the development of computers, software, and electronics feature men. No one but men. Boys. Always. Everywhere.

It is true that there are hundreds if not thousands of individual names erased, forgotten, ignored in the history of technology and science. That has to be how the game is played when the scales are such that individual contributions are of necessity small. But there has also been one (1) entire gender erased, and it is important to see that this is distinct from ”no one reads the majority of Ph.D. dissertations anyway.” I had to learn about Grace Hopper separately and specially. I had to learn about Rosalind Franklin separately and specially. I had to learn about Jocelyn Bell Burnell separately and specially. I had to learn about Margaret Hamilton separately and specially. I had to learn about Lise Meitner separately and specially. And every single one of them after I started college, even though I have been interested in popular science and technology since I was a wee lass. How many more I have missed, simply because they are each and all “an exception,' her too, her too, her too, her herheherher too?
posted by seyirci at 9:56 AM on December 11, 2014 [19 favorites]


I don't think the act of erasure is necessarily that Ms. Hamilton specifically is not lauded unlike male peers

Responding to my own comment: On the other hand, I can certainly name, say, the engineer who led the design of the lunar lander. Tom Kelly - he was prominently featured in an episode of From the Earth to the Moon.
posted by muddgirl at 9:58 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Responding to my own comment: On the other hand, I can certainly name, say, the engineer who led the design of the lunar lander. Tom Kelly - he was prominently featured in an episode of From the Earth to the Moon.

Yes and I read his book about building the hardware and don't recall a mention of Hamilton at all. Which isn't totally odd, with the hardware and software divide, but it's a bit odd, as they must have talked several times. I'll have to check the glossary later today.

Having read several Apollo books, there's a definite air of patting the ladies on the head for their small contributions, when they're bothered to be mentioned. Offhand, can only recall a single instance, from Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire, where he mentions the seamstresses who sewed all the spacesuits by hand.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:18 AM on December 11, 2014


seyirci: I am so lucky, so incredibly lucky, because my childhood mental image for ”electrical engineer” (or, for that matter, for ”woman in technology”) mapped to ”Mom,” and as a result I've worn some incredibly thick blinders to how much that isn't the normal mental viewpoint for everyone else out there.
Ditto, except with computers. It's why it pains me so much to see women so disrespected in the trade, especially among the young.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:50 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Love that picture.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:52 AM on December 11, 2014


Sure, there are tons of anonymous scientists and engineers. That describes a lot of people on this site. But saying anonymity in the field happens to men too comes uncomfortably close to saying it happens equally to men and women, and it is just plain not the case that men and women are treated the same or have anything like similar outcomes in the field.

The list of programmers linked upthread hints at this. It's in alphabetical order, so how far down would you expect to have to go before you find your first woman? Maybe I misread, but the first I found is in position 36 (Danielle Bunten Berry). Hamilton isn't even in it, so if anything the list is evidence for the claim that the contributions of women are routinely minimized and ignored -- and I bet the list wasn't written with malice aforethought.

These are systemic problems, and they are getting worse. The percentage of CS graduates who are women peaked in the mid 1980s at around 37%, and today it is less than 12%. In the 80s, about 40% of programmers were women; today it is around 20%.

Even people who are motivated by nothing other than personal selfishness who don't give a fig about systemic sexism should be furious here. Even people unmoved by the unjust personal costs many individual women in the field or kept from the field have had to pay can imagine where technology would be today if we weren't madly trying to keep half of the population from inventing it.
posted by amery at 12:03 PM on December 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


> "Erased" suggests a malicious act of will. But really, ask yourself, how many people can name a single one of the boys with crewcuts, short sleeve oxford shirts, and narrow black ties? The overall directors, administrators, supervisors? Other than the astronauts (and Werner von Braun), I can't identify anyone by name who contributed to the space program. Not to denigrate her contribution - God knows I couldn't have done it - but had she been male, she would be just as forgotten as the rest.

I know it's been talked a lot about already, but since I wrote "erased" I wanted to add something.

It's true that very few people can name the people associated with the space program beyond the astronauts themselves. But I'm a huge space nerd, and I've read books, watched documentaries, and visited museums to learn a little bit more about the space program. I can name quite a few people involved in the space program who didn't fly in space, and I can recall the achievements of many others, even if I can't recall their names off the top of my head. But in the oft-repeated history of the space program, it's as if women didn't exist until 1978. It's remarkable to see how, for example, the wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts are frequently omitted, despite their considerable (and uncompensated) contributions to NASA's public relations. Or the way the women who assembled the A7L suit or the core rope memory are laughed off as mere bra makers and little old ladies, if they're mentioned at all. This sort of diminution of women is routine in the history of science and technology; "Pickering's Harem" and "Rosy" Franklin immediately come to mind.

It's impossible to know whether Margaret Hamilton or any other woman was erased or merely forgotten, but I have plenty of reasons to be suspicious.
posted by ddbeck at 4:53 PM on December 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


Each of the binders is likely a program or program draft -- the individual printouts of Luminary and Colossus are each about the size of the top one there.

I like this photo from the same series as above of Margaret Hamilton in the capsule.
posted by nonane at 7:19 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


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