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My father's little black bag

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My progressive grandmother
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Let's begin with my parents. My father grew up in Arkansas during the great depression and that was sort of formative for him. They were very poor and he always worried a lot about money because of that. He was raised a lot by his grandmother because his mother was very young when she had him and his grandmother was very assertive. So I still remember his grandmother, nana, who was born in the 1800s kind of calling the shots.

And his mother was a twin. I called her Jane because we played a game called 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' and I insisted that she was Jane, I was Tarzan. And so for her whole like I called her Jane. And she was very different than my other grandmother who grew up in Oklahoma. So my other grandmother was a writer and she wrote bestsellers about women alone on the prairie, feeling very lonely and isolated, and she was quite progressive. She was one of the original members of the committee on racial equality back when that was a very suspect, sort of almost communist, thing in people's minds.

So people were sort of outraged and they did things like burn crosses on her lawn and she was married... Her husband, my grandfather, was an engineer. That's really where I came from. He was my only exposure to an engineer, he was the only engineer I knew. But he had a slide rule and he taught me how to use it. And he actually left me his slide rule, it's the oldest possession that I have. I've somehow managed to keep it through all moves and evacuations and things like that. But he was a petroleum engineer for the Philips Petroleum Company.

My grandmother was very literary, and it's funny listening to my... So they both ended up in this small town in Oklahoma, Bartlesville. And both ended up working for oil companies. But my father's mother was, I would say, more typical of the town in terms of her political views and so it's very interesting listening to her descriptions of my maternal grandmother. Of how liberal she was. She did things like have parties where people sat on pillows on the floor and ate sandwiches cut into triangles with the crusts cut off. And they're still talking about that in Bartlesville.

But she was definitely very active in the civil rights movement. And in fact when World War II happened she wrote a letter to the New York Times complaining about the internment of Japanese Americans in the concentration camps that the United States had and saying it was wrong. And for years and years she got hate mail from people who thought that she was pro Japanese and anti-American. And she always read it and she always tried to answer it, and for her, that was just her way.

And she was quite a good writer and she actually made money during the depression writing the little notes on the inside of greeting cards for Hallmark. They had a little poem or whatever that says Happy Birthday and I think she got paid 15c a piece for those. But that was a significant source of income for her. And at some point when one of her books became a bestseller, a book called Root out of Dry Ground. Her publisher flew her to Boston, and she got to go to Boston for the first time. And my mother loved Welsh poetry, but she'd only seen one book of it. And so my grandmother went to the Boston public library and copied down, by hand, volumes of Welsh poetry from the Boston public library to bring it back to my mother in Bartlesville.

So she was quite a remarkable woman. There's lots of stories about her and I've always thought I got a lot from her. Her grandmother had actually been one of the first women in America to get a PhD in mathematics. So I probably got my mathematical ability through that line.

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: family history, money, grandmother, depression, civil rights movement, publishing

Duration: 5 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017