The days when ‘LOL’ stood for Little Old Lady

As National Women’s Month comes to an end in South Africa, I thought I would pay tribute to another programmer, who celebrated her 79th birthday just over a week ago.

Margaret Hamilton was without a doubt a key contributor to the first successful moon landing on 20 July 1969 with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on board Apollo 11. If it were not for Margaret and her team at the (then) MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, John F Kennedy’s instruction to NASA to have a man on the moon by the turn of the decade, would not have been realised. But she was part of an amazing team, and many of them were women.

Margaret was a director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation laboratory, which developed the software for the Apollo space programme, and many of us will have seen the picture (attached) of a young Margaret standing next to the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code – a heap of papers as tall as she herself – all pure code, nothing else!

In those days, the process of coding the programmes in binary was no easy task and involved physically weaving wires through metal cores in a specific way. Through the core represented one and around the core represented zero. One mistake and it was like pulling out a week’s worth of knitting to find the mistake. Because the factory workers were mostly women, core rope memory was referred to by the programmers as ‘LOL memory’, for ‘Little Old Lady’. I’m not sure that these ladies got the credit they deserved for the part they played in the success of the Apollo 11 mission, which resulted in the first man setting foot on the lunar surface.

The outcome could have been so different though if flight director, Gene Kranz did not instruct his team to write down every possible computer alarm and if Jack Garman had not done exactly that and put it under plexiglass on his desk. As they approached for landing, the 1202 alarm sounded and Garman was able to ascertain that it was a warning that there was a system overload, and they were able to avoid aborting the landing.

Hamilton and her team’s software programme was smart enough to select the important tasks at hand despite the overload and enabled the computer to take recovery action in order to land on the moon successfully and make history.

The documentary below is worth watching: