Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

17 Nov 2016

The White House. Image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

As Barack Obama enters his final few months of office, he included Margaret Hamilton and the late Grace Hopper among the 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honour someone can receive in the US. It is presented to individuals who have made great contributions to the security or national interests of the US, world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours.

The official awarding ceremony will be made at the White House on 22 November and will include a number of laureates from many different fields, including entertainment, sci-tech and design.

Margaret Hamilton

From a women in tech perspective, the two recipients who stand out include mathematician and computer scientist, Margaret Hamilton, and the late, great Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

While Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are best known for their role in the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, Margaret Hamilton is credited with leading the team that created the on-board flight software for the mission’s command modules and lunar modules.

Despite only being 29 at the time, Hamilton went on to create her own software company; having contributed to concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability.

Her work effectively laid the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper – considered the ‘first lady of software’ – passed away at the age of 85 in 1992.

At the forefront of computers and programming development from the 1940s through to the 1980s, Hopper is credited with making  the first compiler to translate source code from one language into another.

One of her greatest legacies is being the first person to ‘debug’ a system – quite literally – from a system, giving birth to the term computer programmers are very familiar with today.

‘These 21 individuals have helped push America forward’

Other well-known laureates nominated to receive the award include Bill and Melinda Gates, for their philanthropic efforts across the globe, as well as entertainment stars Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Ellen DeGeneres.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation’s highest civilian honour; it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better,” Obama said.

“From scientists, philanthropists and public servants to activists, athletes and artists; these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic