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Paine Mansion – our headquarters


Getting funding from Bill Paley
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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So one of the interesting things about Thinking Machines was how it got funded, which was: I wanted to start this company, I had money from DARPA, but I needed commercial money to start the company. So my co-founder, Sheryl Handler, knew this guy named Bill Paley down in New York. I didn't really know who he was. I later discovered he's the guy that sort of invented the idea of a network and... but at the time I had no idea who this guy was. So I went down to meet him, to explain to him this idea of making a parallel computer, to get money from him. And I showed up kind of late and I showed up in blue jeans and a T-shirt and I went to this address on Park Avenue and was rather sceptically shown upstairs by the butler. And the door opened, and all of a sudden I saw all these Monets and Matisses and Degas's and you know... all those things are now a wing of the Met, but they were all hanging up and it was all this familiar stuff. I mean, I recognised the paintings, but I had seen them as posters in dormitories. These were, like, the actual paintings, right? When you opened it up, it was the Picasso of the boy leading the horse was, like, right in front of the elevator when it opened up. And next to it was like the Renoir Strawberries, and then Degas's, the women with the water and the jars and there was a Degas dancer, bronze dancer, and it was just overwhelming when you walked in. And as soon as I walked in, I was like, oh, I should have done my homework here. I had no idea what I was talking about.

So then I met Bill Paley and he was a little surprised to see me dressed as I was. And we sat down and we had dinner together, and I told him all about parallel computing and he didn't ask many questions. And then at the end he says... he said, 'Kid', he says, 'Why don't you just stop right there? I don't understand a word you're saying.' He said, 'But I'm actually a really good judge of people.' He said, 'Do you want some money to do this thing?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'How much do you need?' And I said, 'I need $7.5 million', I think it was. And he said, 'Okay, I'll give you half of it.' And that was my fundraising. And then I said, 'Well, will you be on the board?' And he looked a little surprised, and then he said, 'Yes, sure.'

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: Bill Paley

Duration: 3 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017