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The 10,000-year clock

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The wonderful vineyard in Napa
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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One nice thing about living in this wonderful vineyard in Napa was the kids had the run of the place and they still talk about the kids there. For instance, Noah always loved vehicles and he was really probably just like four years old or something like that, but he... we had these little four-wheel-drive almost like motorcycle things, and he figured out how to start them, so he was always kidnapping the vehicles and driving them around. And one of the things I did is I got... because I had lots of time, I built the kids a treehouse off in the woods out of an old wine crate. But the kids were too small to climb a ladder, so I built an elevator for them that I could lift them up into the treehouse. And so we would go off into the woods to the treehouse. But while we were there, we discovered old wine stakes that... you know, stakes for growing grapes, and told... told the people at the vineyard about it. And they went back and discovered that there had been old grape fields there. And of course, grape fields in Napa are worth tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre, so finding a place where they could plant grapes was a big deal. So they decided that the whole area... they were going to clear it and replant grapes there. But Jacqui Safra knew that this was the area where I built this treehouse. So he insisted that they leave the treehouse and they'd leave an area around the treehouse, which they have to do anyway, because the grapes can't be near the trees, and so he probably left this, like, hundred thousand dollar chunk of land just to preserve this little treehouse that I made. And it's still there today, and when we go back, the kids go and visit their treehouse and the... I put it up temporarily with ropes, binding it, because I didn't want to hurt the tree by putting nails into it, and the tree's now grown up around the ropes and sort of incorporated the ropes, but the treehouse is still there in the middle of this grape vineyard.

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: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

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: Napa

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017