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My reflections on Thinking Machines


Difficult times post-Thinking Machines
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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We sold the... by then, IBM had come out with its own parallel computer, so we sold the hardware business to Sun and the software business to Oracle, eventually. And then eventually Oracle bought Sun, so it all ended up at Oracle. But the Sun people... Sun at that time was a workstation company, and we kind of helped move them to a server company, and that was just as the Web was happening. And, in fact, our next product was going to be a Web server, but nobody knew what a Web server was, and so people weren't willing to invest in this thing that filled a market that was a zero dollar market, but Sun did.

[Q] What year was that?

Well, it was just as the Web was coming out, so it was, you know, in the early '90s. So Mozilla was out, but Netscape wasn't yet. And the Web wasn't really that impressive then, but Sun ran with that and did very well with that. And one thing I'm very proud of is I managed to get everybody who went to Sun, I got every option that they had in a share of Thinking Machines stock converted to one option of Sun stock. And so those people actually did very well. But I felt terrible about the whole thing, because by then I really, of course, cared a lot about the people that worked, and I felt they had all depended on me to make this thing work financially, and everybody was looking to me to save it, and I couldn't, so I felt I had really let them down. And most people had never... this was the days before everybody did start-ups and so on, so most people had never had another job: they'd come right out of MIT or... and so we all thought this was kind of the end of the world. We didn't realise we'd all be fine. In fact, everybody went on and did extremely well and started their own companies, and everybody did great. And still today when I run into people from Thinking Machines, they almost always say to me, 'That was the best time I ever had', 'It was the best job I ever had.' So in retrospect, it was a success for them, but at the time I felt it was such a failure for them. So I felt pretty terrible about that. It was a bad time for me, business-wise, but it was kind of a wonderful time for me family-wise, because it was the time when I adopted my children and actually my daughter was born on the day that Thinking Machines went bankrupt.

[Q] I didn't know that.

So I decided that was kind of an amazing moment. So... I'll come back to tell that story later, but that was sort of the end of something and the beginning of something.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Oracle, Sun, Web, Mozilla, Netscape, company, bankruptcy, Thinking Machines, failure

Duration: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017