the hidden power of technology in Apollo 11.

Last night Juno and I sat up and watched a documentary on the Apollo 11 moon landing.

One thing I really geek out on is the aesthetics of all that 1960s technology.

Not a swipe, not a pinch to be seen. Instead, that pleasing haptic certainty of toggle switches and dials, and sliders and buttons. Just look at that control panel…It just makes you want to close down your Instagram and get busy checking your sub-orbital course trajectory dosen’t it?

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was an amazing piece of kit. Itused a series of ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’ to enable the astronauts to enter instructions during flight. It weighed around 30 kg and had a total memory of approximately 64 kilobytes.

Our front-loading washing machine probably has more computing power. And a single iPad out computes the AGC by many orders of magnitude.

Yet written into that mere 64 kilobytes was an intricate weave of computational nouns and verbs that would take mankind to the moon, and deliver them safely home again.

Have a think about that potential when you are next using your iPad or iPhone to play games or scroll endlessly through Facebook.

Perhaps equally impressive is that the actual software for the AGC was developed and written by a team at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory led by Margaret Hamilton.

Remember this is 1969. And you don’t see too many women in the NASA control rooms. Unless they are serving tea.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the entire source code used in the Apollo 11 computer.

In the early days, women were often assigned software tasks because software just wasn’t viewed as very important. “It’s not that managers of yore respected women more than they do now,” Rose Eveleth writes in a great piece on early women programmers for Smithsonian magazine. “They simply saw computer programming as an easy job. It was like typing or filing to them and the development of software was less important than the development of hardware. So women wrote software, programmed and even told their male colleagues how to make the hardware better.”
“I began to use the term ‘software engineering’ to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering,” Hamilton told Verne’s Jaime Rubio Hancock in an interview. “When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline.”

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