When the Apollo program was working on the ship that eventually took man to the moon, the pocket calculator had not yet been invented. The Apollo 11 guidance system had a whopping 72k of memory on board, which is the size of a smallish .jpg file. The men and women who helped build and launch the Apollo crafts have fascinating stories, and today we’re going to talk about some of the women.
When we think of modern computer memory, we’re usually thinking of RAM. Your desktop computer likely contains sticks of RAM totaling between 512k and several GB of space. The more RAM your computer has, the faster it’s able to process commands and the better it’s able to handle multiple processes at once.
When we hear memory discussed in terms of the Apollo program, however, it’s ROM, not RAM. In the fifties and sixties, ROM was something called core rope memory. As you probably know, at their core, all computer programing languages boil down to binary code. (“Binary, binary, binary” -Donna Noble, Companion.) Binary is a system of ones and zeroes, and each “line” of code that ran the guidance system would be a string of ones and zeroes. Before microchips and fancy storage and conductive gadgets, that code was created and stored in something that looks like this:
Each strand of wire was woven by hand, with a sewing needle, by a pair of women factory workers. The base was made up of a series of tiny magnets with holes in the center; if the wire went through the core, it indicated a “1” in binary, if it went around the magnet and not through it, it indicated a “0”.
The women who build the guidance system were factory workers, several hailing from a watch factory where they’d learned to do high-detail manual labor on very, very tiny parts. The scientists and engineers at NASA nicknamed core rope memory LOL memory, for “little old lady.” Not really super progressive, but it was the fifties. We’re probably lucky to know women worked on these systems at all.
Here’s a look at the entire guidance system ROM, and a video explaining a bit of the historical context of the women weaving the software.
Image credit, taken at Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA
The scientists, engineers and laborers who helped get us to the moon are a fascinating bunch, from a time when American innovation was unparalleled. While NASA is doing a wonderful job of helping us all get to know the men and women behind the scenes, it’s still amazing to consider what the team was able to do with the technology available at the time. Without one of these:
It’s also pretty neat to consider that amongst the most brilliant engineers America’s ever had was a group of hard-working, blue collar, badass ladies whose attention to detail ensured a big hunk of metal and moving parts made it all the way to the moon and back.