Margaret Hamilton- A Pioneer for women in NASA and Computer Science

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 was just minutes away from touching down on the surface 625098110.0of the moon. Engineers in Houston, TX, and in the lab at MIT, including a young software engineer named Margaret, were anxiously waiting to see if their brand-new computer software would hold up. So far, everything with the lunar module’s on-board computers had gone according to plan, with no major hiccups. So the engineers in Houston were startled when error messages suddenly began popping up. The computer, built with software written by a team of engineers from MIT headed by Margaret, was being overwhelmed with a series of unnecessary tasks rather than performing its real job of landing the lunar module. The panicked astronauts sent a message back to Houston. Should they abort the landing? Would the computer fail at the last minute?

Margaret was born Margaret Heafield on August 17, 1936 in Paoli, Indiana. As a young girl, she excelled in science and math, both subjects not considered typical for women to like. She attended Earlham college in 1958 to get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. While she was there, she met her husband, James Cox Hamilton. After Margaret graduated, she was accepted to the lab at MIT as a software engineer. The plan for Margaret was to work three years to support her husband’s degree at Harvard Law, and then the pair would switch so Margaret could pursue a graduate degree in abstract math. However, Margaret would soon find herself caught up in one of the biggest revolutions to ever sweep the technology industry.

During her time at MIT, she got her first introduction to the world of software engineering. She worked on projects such as SAGE, which was a computer program designed to search for “unfriendly” aircraft, a very early form of homeland security. Margaret called her work on SAGE as a “jumping-off point”, where she became interested in the importance of software reliability. This early work under pressure undoubtedly served her well during her next major project: creating software for the Apollo 11 moon mission.

In 1961, MIT’s instrumentation lab received the contract for the Apollo guidance and control systems. In order to take advantage of what she saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Margaret put her plans for a graduate degree on hold and applied for a position with the Apollo program. She was hired on the spot. As Margaret recalled, it was like the “Wild West.” She and her colleagues were coding programs for takeoff, navigation, flight plans, and the moon landing, all without a guidebook or a clear set of rules. There were no classes in computer science and no precedent for the programs Margaret was creating. As she said of herself and her fellow engineers, they “had no choice but to be pioneers.”

In 1965, Margaret was put in charge of all onboard flight software for the Apollo mission. As a female engineer at NASA in the 1960’s, Margaret was already unique. As a female engineer at NASA in the 1960’s responsible for a major coding project like Apollo, Margaret was unprecedented. She was also unusual in the fact that she was a working mother in the 1960’s. While working on the Apollo program, Margaret would often bring her young daughter, Lauren to the lab at night and on the weekends. Margaret was often asked how she could stand to leave her child all day while she was at work. But to Margaret, the work that she was doing was important, and so she created a balance that allowed her to spend time with her daughter and to give her absolute best at her job.

The flight software that Margaret’s team was coding had to be absolutely perfect. The astronauts needed to be able to rely on it to get them safely to the moon and back, something no one had ever attempted to do before. Coding in Margaret’s day was slightly Margaret_Hamilton_-_restoration.jpgmore complicated than typing it out on the computer. Every line of the program had to punched in a stack of cards, which would then be run through a massive computer overnight. The picture on the left shows Hamilton standing next to a massive stack of code written for the Apollo program. Every line of that code had to be tested and retested according to the rigorous standards Margaret put in place. As she and the other programmers knew, there would be no second chances if the software failed mid-flight.

This intense testing proved invaluable when the time came for the moon landing. As the computer’s error messages were popping up, Margaret and the other engineers knew that the software would not fail. It had been programmed specifically to perform the most important task in case of a shutdown. In this instance, that task was landing the lunar module. Houston advised the astronauts to continue with the landing process, and history was made.

Margaret Hamilton is a true modern pioneer. She excelled in science during a time when women were often excluded from tech jobs, particularly in the brand-new field of computer science. Engineers like Margaret Hamilton were responsible for contributing to a massive leap in software technology that resulted in the basis for the computers we have in the present day. In 2016, Margaret was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contributions to the Apollo mission. Today, Hamilton is the creator of Hamilton Technologies, a tech company in the same neighborhood as MIT, where she got her start as a software engineer. She has encouraged hundreds of women and girls to enter the tech industry, where their accomplishments have the chance to be just as important and legendary as Hamilton’s.


Day in the Life of a De Smet Tour Guide

Have you ever taken a guided tour through a museum or historic site and wondered what it was really like to be a tour guide? Could it really be as glamorous and exciting as it seemed?

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LIWMS Director and tour guides visiting the Walnut Grove, MN, pageant.

Like most jobs in the tourist industry being a tour guide is an incredibly rewarding, if not occasionally frustrating experience. There are painfully slow days, lightning-fast busy days, and days that are combinations of the two and feel like they’re going to last for the rest of our lives. But how many other jobs are there where you can get paid to talk to people about history all day? In the end, the benefits of working as a tour guide always outweigh the drawbacks. “The best part about being a tour guide,” according to Heidi, who has worked at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society for four years, “is that you get to meet people from all over the world.”

Of course, a major part of being a tour guide is interacting with the guests of the museum. People from all over the country and even the world come to visit, and whether De Smet is a destination or a pit stop for them, they all bring something new and interesting to each tour.  Some groups will know a lot about Laura’s life, some only know about her from the television show, some have almost no knowledge of her at all, and some will be a mix of the three. While that gives the each tour some variety, it also contributes to one of the biggest challenges of being a tour guide. Our executive director, Tessa Flak, has also worked as a tour guide at the Laura site in Burr Oak, Iowa. “I’ve spent eight years as a tour guide,” she says, “And none of my tours have ever been the same.” Tour guides are not only responsible for memorizing the stories of each “Little House” book and the tour script, but often have to adapt each tour on the fly to fit a particular groups’s interest and knowledge level. 


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However, there is much more to being a LIWMS tour guide than just giving tours! A typical day will start with opening each of the buildings and checking to make sure everything looks ready for the day ahead. The gift shop will need to be vacuumed and restocked. During the day there is generally someone posted at the front desk, in order to answer questions, handle transactions, and get people signed up for tours. At the end of the day, each building needs to be cleaned, swept, and locked up for the night.

Beyond these daily chores, however, the most typical thing about a tour guide’s day is that there is no such thing as a typical tour guide day. One of our summer interns, Melanie, put it best: “My favorite part of a regular day is the random things we do, like decorating covered wagons or rearranging display cases in the exhibit. Life is always exciting here at the Society!” Sometimes you might find yourself pulling an 1880’s covered wagon across a parking lot, rearranging porcelain dolls in our gift shop cases, or struggling to fix a weed-whacker. During a summer thunderstorm this year, we ended up serving fruit punch and some of Laura’s leftover birthday cake to guests as we waited for the rain and hail to stop!


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The craziness of some of these days brings all of us tour guides together into a sort of family. But what brings us together the most is our desire to bring the world of Laura to life for our visitors. Dianne, our assistant director, states that being a tour guide is important “because we are the ones who are passing along her stories and keeping them alive.” Without tour guides, the experience of visiting Laura’s “Little Town” would be far less personal. “We spend a short time with people on our tours”, Dianne says, “but sometimes they leave a lasting impression on us as we hope we do for them.” And every tour guide can agree, one of the most special moments during a tour are when visitors are overwhelmed with emotion from visiting the buildings of Laura’s childhood. We get to feel like we are helping to make dreams come true. How’s that for a summer job?

TV Show Truths: Competition Over Almanzo

One of the most memorable scenes in the “Little House on the Prairie” television series is  Laura and Nellie’s mud fight. Many Laura fans have raised the question: Did this really happen? The answer is no; however, Laura and Nellie did have some competition over Almanzo Wilder.

TV Show:

In season six of the TV series Almanzo Wilder comes to Walnut Grove along with his older sister, Eliza Jane. One day when Almanzo dropsEliza Jane off at school, Mrs. Harriet Olsen, Nellie’s mother, takes notice of Almanzo and thought that he would make a perfect match for her daughter who just graduated from the school in town.  Nellie seems to be a bit embarrassed by her mother’s actions, but goes along with it. On the other hand, Laura Ingalls falls for Almanzo right away, so there ends up being this competition between Laura and Nellie. Laura volunteers to cook Almanzo’s favorite dish, cinnamon chicken for Nellie and Almanzo’s first “date.” Due to the competition, Laura  uses cayenne pepper instead of cinnamon. Ultimately it ruins their date as Nellie and Almanzo’s mouths are burning after just one bite.

For Nellie to get back at Laura she lends Laura her books to study for the school certificate test. Nellie does not give Laura the history book because even though Miss Wilder said there would be a lot of history, Nellie said it was just to throw her off. Laura ends up failing the test because it is almost all history. After the test Laura runs into Nellie and amidst her furry, they get into a mud fight. Laura ends up winning because Almanzo comes by and picks Laura up to help her clean up and leaves Nellie in the mud.


In the books Laura and Nellie’s competition did not happen the same way it did in the TV show, it was a lot more civil. None the less, there was still some competition between the two. In Laura’s book, These Happy Golden Years, Nellie comes into the picture after Laura and Almanzo had already been on some sleigh and buggy rides together. One main difference between the books and TV show is that in the show Laura and Nellie’s competition starts early on, before Almanzo picks up Laura from her first teaching job. In the books, the competition between the two starts much later and it is after Almanzo picked her up from her first teaching job.

In These Happy Golden Years, Laura started going on buggy rides with Almanzo once he has a new buggy. Almanzo and Laura go on a few buggy rides themselves and then one Sunday Nellie Olsen shows up in the buggy. Nellie talks constantly about how much she loves buggy rides and how great his horses were. Laura could not stand Nellie but does not say anything about it. The next Sunday Nellie is in the buggy again when Almanzo comes to pick Laura up and Laura is not happy. During the buggy ride Laura is determined to have Nellies true colors show. First Laura lets the end of the dust robe flutter carelessly behind the horses, which scares the horses momentarily and scares Nellie as she exclaims that they were wild.

Second, Laura suggests to go by the Boasts and then asks to take new road north. The road ends up being “wet and boggy” and Nellie declares that “this isn’t any fun” (THGY 176). Laura executes what she had planned, she exposed Nellie Olsen’s true self. Once Almanzo drops Nellie off she suggests that they would go another way next week, but Almanzo just says goodbye.

When Almanzo drops off Laura she makes it clear to him that she will not go on anymore buggy rides with him if Nellie is going to come; he has to pick either her or Nellie. And when Sunday comes again there is Almanzo ready to take Laura for another buggy ride.

Real Life:

In Laura’s real life there was no Nellie Olsen. She was actually modeled off of three people, Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert. In this instance, the real Nellie Olsen was Stella Gilbert. Almanzo started giving Stella rides because she worked hard and it would be nice for her to have a break. Laura was fine with it at first, but then “Stella’s smugness gave her scheme away to me. She was trying her best to edge me out of drives” (Pioneer Girl 301). Laura then started to maneuver the drives so they would end closer to Stella’s house and Almanzo would have to drop her off first. One day when Almanzo was dropping Laura off she gave him the same ultimatum that she gives him in the books. The main difference is that in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography Laura is more confident that Almanzo will come back for her and in the book, These Happy Golden Years, she is not confident that Almanzo will come for her.

Unfortunately, the mud fight scene from the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series did not happen in real life. That being said, Almanzo still had multiple admirers who wanted to get behind his beautiful team and tried to edge Laura out. Even though each aspect is a little different, with the TV show being the most dramatic, all three convey the “competition” Laura had when courting Almanzo.

TV Show Truths: Courting

Wagon and Sleigh Rides:

In the “Little House” television series, Almanzo offers to drive Laura to and from the school she is teaching at in order to see her family on the weekends. This is true to Laura’s accounts in her book, These Happy Golden Years, along with her real life. In Season Six of the hit TV show, viewers saw that Laura had been head over heels for Almanzo while he had seen her as a nice, young friend. Toward the end of the season, Laura gets the teaching job and Almanzo offers to pick her up every weekend and take  her back Sunday afternoon. At first Almanzo was doing this as a way to give his horses a workout, but as they spend more time together he begins to see Laura as more than just nice friend who is ten years younger than him.

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A cutter similar to the one Almanzo would have built on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.

The idea of Almanzo driving Laura to and from school for the weekends came from Laura’s book, These Happy Golden Years. In that book and also in her real life Almanzo came to pick her up every weekend from school in the freezing cold of winter. The main difference between the TV show and Laura’s books and real life was that in the books and real life Laura was not interested in Almanzo. She made it clear to Almanzo in one of their sleigh rides that, “I am only going with you because I want to get home. When I am home to stay, I will not go with you any more” (These Happy Golden Years 62). Eventually after her school term was over, Almanzo was persistent and came back for Laura, a few weeks after, despite her request towards the end of their sleigh rides to and from the Brewster/Bouchie school. It was not until their sleigh rides to and from school ended that Laura slowly started to fall for him.

Age is Just a Number:

One factor that played a big role in Laura and Almanzo’s courtship in the TV show was Almanzo’s age. In the TV show and in real life Almanzo was ten years older than Laura. However, in the book series Laura made Almanzo only six years older than her. In The Long Winter, Laura notes that Almanzo was nineteen years old in October of 1880, when she was thirteen. This becomes an important fact because according to the Homestead Act the homesteaders were supposed to be twenty-one to file for a homestead. In the books Almanzo had to lie about his age to get his homestead (Long Winter 98-99). Laura may have made this change for two reasons, one being dramatic effect, Almanzo being man enough at nineteen to start his own homestead. The second reason was most likely just to shorten the age gap for her readers.

The TV show followed her real life regarding her age, which caused lots of issues for her father. He liked Almanzo as a man, but had a hard time getting used to Laura falling in love with him, due to the age difference. In the episode, “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,” Almanzo asks Laura to marry him at age sixteen, which “Pa” has a fit over because he does not want his daughter to get married until eighteen. Now “Pa” did not necessarily have a rule like this in real life; however, Laura did not get married until she was eighteen and when Almanzo proposed her parents were very happy for her and had seen it coming (Pioneer Girl 307).

Role Reversal:

The biggest change in Laura and Almanzo’s relationship between the TV show and the Little House books and Laura’s real life is who pursued who. In the TV show it is Laura who first sets her eyes on Almanzo during the first episode of Season Six. Almanzo does not start noticing Laura as more than a friend until the end of the season. In real life and the books Almanzo pursued Laura starting when she was fifteen and teaching at the Brewster/Bouchie school. Then it was not until later, after she finished teaching her first term, that she started to fall for Almanzo. One thought as to why the TV show had Laura pursue Almanzo is because in the 1970s it would have come across as inappropriate if a twenty-six year old man was pursuing a sixteen year old young woman, even though this was completely acceptable in the 1880s.

Bessie Coleman- A Pioneer For Black Pilots

Bessie was born Bessie Coleman on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman, who were sharecroppers. Although her childhood was undoubtedly a difficult one, Bessie was a happy child, and an extremely intelligent one. She had to walk four miles back and forth to school everyday to her one room, segregated schoolhouse, but she excelled in math and was an avid reader. When she was still a young child, her father, who was half-Native American as well as black, left the family to pursue better economic opportunities in Oklahoma. Susan Coleman and her children elected to stay in Texas, and Bessie often ended up pitching in to help with her younger siblings or to pick cotton. 


Bessie completed her schooling up to the eighth grade, and then she began saving for college. In 1910, Bessie entered the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but she was only able to attend for one term before her money ran out. Bessie, who always had her sights set forward, saved up again and moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brother and opened a manicurists shop. One day her brother, looking to tease her, told Bessie that women in France were doing something that Bessie could never do- fly a plane. In response, Bessie began learning French.

Just a few months later, Bessie crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship. She was going to be trained as a pilot at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy, the most prestigious flying school in France. Seven months later she passed the test for her international pilot’s license, making her the first licensed black female pilot in the world. Bessie returned to America intent on purchasing her own plane and starting a flying school for African Americans. However, she soon ran into money problems. She found that pilots could make more money performing stunt shows on rural tour circuits, Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922).jpgknown as barnstorming. She returned to France in 1922 for advanced aviation training, and began touring as soon as she returned to the U.S. Bessie performed dangerous stunts like wing-walking and parachute jumping to amazed crowds all across the country.

Throughout her increased popularity- among both black and white Americans- Bessie remained true to her goal of increasing equality for African Americans in the world of flying. She refused to perform in a show that didn’t allow black and white people to enter through the same gates, and insisted on desegregation for her audiences. She encouraged fellow African-Americans to fly, believing that “the air is the only place free of prejudice.” Unfortunately, Bessie did not live to see her dream of opening a flight school for black pilots. By 1926, Bessie had finally made the last payment on her own plane, a used model with a lot of engine troubles. One night, she and her mechanic took the plane up in the air for a test run before a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Over three hundred feet in the air the plane malfunctioned, and both Bessie and the mechanic were killed in the crash.

Thousands of people showed up to Bessie’s funeral, held in Orlando, and an additional 15,000 showed up in Chicago to pay their respects. The poor, black daughter of Texas sharecroppers grew up to inspire an entire country in her short life. She proved that not only could black women fly planes, but that they could excel at it. Her legacy inspired black flying groups like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Her fight for racial equality in the skies caused her to break boundaries, and makes her a true pioneer.

Pioneer Cooking: Fried Apples’N’Onions


ingredientsThis is the recipe that Molly and I were anxiously awaiting. It sounds like an odd combination, as most of these pioneer recipes do, but Almanzo spoke so highly of it that we wanted to try it for ourselves. Fried Apples’N’Onions is mentioned in Farmer Boy as Almanzo’s favorite food:

… Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples’n’onions.

When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best and she cooked it for him.

Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’n’onions fried together. (73)

This recipe is on page 127 and 128 in the Little House Cookbook. Since the recipe is for six servings, we decided to cut it in half, as we were not serving that many people and we were not sure if we were going to love it as much as Almanzo. The recipe calls for bacon or salt pork and we used bacon as it was readily available to us. Then we used three tart apples and three yellow onions since we cut the recipe in half.

bread tipOnce you have all your ingredients ready, the recipe says to start frying the bacon. If multitasking is not your thing, you can start with the apples and onions like we did. When cutting the onions, the cookbook suggests holding a slice of bread in your mouth between your teeth to prevent you from crying. Molly tried it and did not find it helpful. I also would not recommend cutting the apples next to the onions like we did because by the end of it Molly and I were both crying.

chopping apples and onionsFor cutting that apples the recipe calls for a corer to core the apple and then cut it crosswise in circles. We had an apple corer that cut the apple into wedges, so we used that and then cut the apples into thinner slices. Once all the apples and onions were cut we fried the bacon, but again the cookbook says to fry the bacon and while doing that to start cutting the apples and onions. Either way will work, just do whatever you feel comfortable with.

After the meat is fried, keep a tablespoon of grease and pour out the rest. Then fry the onions in it for about three minutes. Once that is done add the apples and sprinkle some brown sugar over top. Cover the pan with a lid and cook the apples until they are tender, stirring periodically to prevent scorching.


Once the apples and onions are ready spread the mixture over the bacon or pork slices, which we broke into smaller pieces, and serve warm.

Molly and I were once again surprised, not necessarily that it was good, but that it lived up to all of Almanzo’s praises. If you are not an onion fan I would still recommend trying it as I do not like onions but did like this recipe and would eat it again!finished product

TV Show Truths: Laura Teaching

A favorite part of the books and TV show for many fans is the start of Laura and Almanzo’s relationship. The start of their relationship relates back to Laura’s teaching job in the books, TV show, and in her real life.

In the books and TV show Laura gets her teaching certificate at age fifteen, even though she is supposed to be sixteen before she can take the teacher examination.

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Laura at age 17, shortly after she started teaching. (Picture Credit: Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association)

In both situations, the school district is desperate for a teacher that they do not mind that Laura is fifteen. There is a slight variation between the two though in the fact that in the book, Little Town on the Prairie, Laura does not tell the superintendent that she is fifteen because he does not ask her age (306). However, in the episode “Sweet Sixteen” it is made known to the superintendent that Laura is not yet sixteen, but she will be in two weeks. The superintendent then said that they could make the exception for her since she did pass her examination. Also, the timing between the book and TV show are slightly off as in Little Town on the Prairie Laura receives her teacher’s certificate on December 24, 1882 (306). The TV show is slightly off from this as Laura receives her teacher’s certificate roughly two weeks before her 16th birthday, which would have been around January 24, 1883. Despite the few discrepancies on the dates the TV show and book stay close to each other.

The problem arises when looking at Laura’s real life; there are actually a lot of conflicting information between Laura’s accounts in her books of her first teaching experience and what happened in her real life. Laura was still underage at the time she got her teaching certificate; however, it was a different situation. According to Laura’s teaching certificate she received it on December 10, 1883, therefore at this point Laura was already sixteen (Pioneer Girl 261). One might think that she was then of age to be a teacher, but that was not the case. Prior to 1883 the Dakota Territory had no age restrictions on school teachers. That changed in 1883 when the Dakota Territory made it mandatory for the superintendents to hold public teacher examinations for anyone over the age of eighteen. This meant that the legal teaching age was eighteen and not sixteen, as Laura writes about in her books (Pioneer Girl 260-61). There is some uncertainty as to if Laura deliberately made this change or if she had just forgotten and had the dates confused in her head.

There is one aspect that the TV show and books were correct on in relation to Laura’s real life. That aspect is the name of the superintendent who gave Laura her teacher’s certificate. All three say his name was Mr. Williams.

Even though the TV show and books did not follow Laura’s real life, they still kept the aspect of Laura being an underage teacher when she had her first teaching job. Stay tuned to the next post to hear about Laura and Almanzo’s courtship.