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The ultimate spoon trick gone wrong
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I was raising money for the clock. I suddenly needed money to purchase the land in Nevada where we were going to put it. And this was a mountain that we had discovered that was in the middle of the national park. It was a perfect mountain, but it had a beryllium mine on it, and the guy wanted $2 billion for it. And we kept bargaining him down over the years, and we finally came down to $250,000, so we were like, 'We'd better go for this.' And I needed a few hundred thousand dollars quickly. So I knew a very interesting woman, Courtney Ross, in New York. I didn't know her very well at the time. She was related to the person I went to Papua New Guinea with, but I was in New York and I figured maybe she'll donate the money. So I called her up and I said, 'Hey, I'm in New York, can we get together?' And she said, 'Sure, come over for dinner, I'm having some friends over for dinner.' So I arrived at her New York apartment and her friends were like Jesse Jackson and Quincy Jones and it was quite a set of celebrities. And they were all already partying by the time I got there. And they were sitting at this beautiful table in a very nicely designed house, but I'm kind of oblivious to such things. And the conversation is all about psychic power and things like that. So I sort of know how these conversations go and where it's going to head, so I have some time to kind of prepare a magic trick. So I do a little homework without anybody noticing, and everybody's sort of drinking and not paying attention to me, so it's very easy for me to do it.

And then sure enough, the conversation comes around to Uri Geller and I say, 'Well, you know, it really... I can bend spoons like Uri Geller does.' And they said, 'Oh, no, you can't.' And I said, 'It's not that easy. I don't have a spoon. Can I borrow yours?' And I get somebody else's spoon and I get a glass of water and I start stirring it in the water with everybody watching, and the spoon starts bending. And I lift it up and hold it and it bends and then it bends over and it breaks in half and bends down. And the whole table is just stunned. I've never had a magic trick where I've had a reaction like this. And one of the people says, 'I can't believe you did that.' And the butler says, 'I can't believe you did that.' And I'm like, 'Well, no it's not... I didn't really use psychic power, it's just a magic trick.' And they're like, 'Do you realise what that spoon was?'

So it turns out, known to everybody else at the table but me, is that Courtney Ross is a great fan of a famous designer, Josef Hoffmann. And this apartment was designed by Josef Hoffmann. And Courtney has lovingly recreated all of the original furniture and so on that was designed for this room, including the silverware set that Josef Hoffmann hand-crafted. And she has bought at auction all 12 settings of this silverware so that she has, like, the complete set of the Josef Hoffmann spoons. Now to me, they just looked like every Crate and Barrel spoon, because those are all knock-offs of the original Josef Hoffmann spoon, but these are the things that everybody has copied, right? And I have just destroyed one of the 12 Josef Hoffmann spoons while everybody's watching, knowing what's happening but not being able to believe their eyes that I'm destroying this spoon. So of course I feel horrified, so I reach for it to pick it up and I say, 'Oh, I'll have it repaired.' And Courtney slaps my hand and says, 'Don't touch my spoons again.'

So to her credit, we became great friends. I knew I was forgiven when next Christmas, she sent me a book of Josef Hoffmann where one of the double-page foldouts was one of these spoons. But it was such a surprising thing that by the next day I was sitting in a New York restaurant and I overheard somebody telling the story of this happening. It got around that fast in New York that this guy had destroyed the spoon. But it also ended up being kind of a great blessing for me, because of course every magician heard this story, so every time I run into a famous magician, they know who I am because they've heard this story of the ultimate spoon trick gone wrong.

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: Josef Hoffmann, Uri Geller, Courtney Ross

Duration: 5 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017