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Music – The First Software

Updated: May 9, 2022

"I'm not a software engineer. I've never written a single line of code in my life."

"Ah, but you have," Lasmé declared before taking a sip of tea while it was still hot.

"What? I'm telling you no, never. I don't even own a computer beyond this blasted thing," I said, presenting my overpriced smartphone as evidence of the fact, "and all I do with it is use software other people have written."

"Your music compositions are your works of software engineering, and they are some of the most powerful software applications ever developed."

That stopped me, mid-objection. What the hell was she talking about? Music was nothing like a cold, mechanical piece of coded programming controlling a soulless, heartless electronic mechanism. And composing music was as far from the mindless coding of software programs as one could imagine. Music composition is all about conveying feelings, a baring of one's soul to the world through sound, timbré, rhythm and form. I shook my head, almost violently in response to Lasmé obscene suggestion. Composing music brought me immense happiness and satisfaction. Writing code could never do that.

Nodding, Lasmé grinned all sly and knowing at me like a Cheshire cat.

"Yes," she said, her nod transforming into an odd rotating movement as though she sought to draw ovals with her chin. "Yes, indeed."

"Please take a look at this photograph," Lasmé implored, "Look at the happiness in her smile, her cheeks and in her eyes. She appears to be pleased with her creation, wouldn't you say?"

"Her creation?"

"Yes. It's represented in that tower of paper printouts, just as you represent your musical compositions on scores for others to see and play from."

"A story of some kind?"

"In a fashion. But much more than a made up story. Her creation was a story maker."

Still not understanding, I simply looked at the photo then at Lasmé then at the photo trying to guess.

"It's software?" I asked, not quite guessing, but just barely.

Lasmé began her odd head movement again. I could almost see little ovals drifting away as her chin scribed each one into thin air.

"Do you know who she is?"

It was obvious I did not know, and shook my head impatiently to let her know that I already knew she knew I didn't know who the girl in the photo was.

"Her name is Margaret Hamilton. She was the first software engineer at NASA. She designed and developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo missions. That stack she's balancing is source code listings of software specifically developed for the Apollo 11 mission. Software for both the Command Module and Lunar Module."

That shocked me. I had never read anything about any female being the first software engineer at NASA, let alone one responsible for development of such a key piece of the mission which would make it possible for first landing of people on the Moon, and for their safe return. It couldn't be true. NASA was good old boy's club central. No way was a girl like that the first software engineer at NASA. No way she was responsible for creating the mission's flight software.

Then Lasmé stopped chin-drawing ovals and leaned in close to me. Close enough that I could smell the herbal tea she had sipped on her breath when she whispered as though sharing an epic secret with me.

"But, as amazing as it is, her software was not the first ever created. No. The first software engineering product in the universe as we know it was the first musical composition scribed and played more than once."

That statement should have shocked me as much as the fact that a girl named Margaret Hamilton was the creator of software which helped take humankind to the Moon and safely back again. But I immediately understood just how correct Lasmé was.

"Musicians program people," I said with no small amount of awe. Then added, "with carefully organized and skillfully generated waves of sound."

Lasmé smiled broadly at this moment of epiphany for me. I think she enjoyed such moments more than anything else in life, explaining why she was so effective at helping others find and traverse paths of learning.

More to come . . .

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