Last week at the Thinking Cup, a Boston coffee shop whose tabletops are made from historical newspaper front pages, I took a picture of this 1969 article about the moon landing. It’s a little feature piece on Margaret Hamilton, an Apollo program director and enormous pioneer in the field of ultra-reliable software. She invented the term “software engineering” in a time when “computer science” wasn’t yet a discipline. She also pretty much invented asynchronous computing, priority scheduling, and end-to-end testing, the core concepts of software that doesn’t fail. That work avoided a last-minute abort of the moon landing. Here’s the article:
“The tiny girl with the long blond hair and large smoky glasses seemed unlikely to have been a director of computer programming for Apollo 11–but that’s what Margaret Hamilton was.
“‘I’m really happy,’ Margaret said, acknowledging that her hands were shaking a little from all the excitement at the MIT Faculty Club, where a party for the Apollo group was taking place.
“‘We were afraid there might be something that could go wrong. Maybe we forgot just one test…’
“ONE TENSE MOMENT did come when the computer alarm system sounded, indicating the computer was overworked. This sort of emergency was provided for, however, and the bail0out alarms automatically threw out all but the most critical programs, restoring the computer to normalcy.”
You almost don’t need to do the textual analysis: the tiny girl (she was 31 at the time), the job presented as a punchline, the emphasis on her emotions and her anxiety, the acknowledgement of “one tense moment” and the reassuring note that the software would take care of all that. From the article you would never know that she made that software. Nothing in that article is false. Nothing is even substantively misrepresented. But to a modern reader, I think, it looks completely wrong. It’s a testament, really, to the profound power of narrative.