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My amphibious car versus the presidential helicopter

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My life list: An amphicar
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I always had strange vehicles in Cambridge, but one of the strangest I had was, again, something that had been on my life list I always wanted to own, which was an amphibious car. When I was a kid, I saw one of these Amphicars drive into the water and I was, like, I want one of those. And so when I became a grown-up, I remembered that and would always look for them for sale. And I finally found one for sale up in Maine, and so I got it and brought it down, and I'd love it because it looked kind of an ordinary car, except it had two propellers in back, but it was a convertible. But people didn't necessarily realise what it was until you drove it into the water. So for instance I, one time, had picked my friend up, Ottavia, at the airport. She came in from Italy, she was a little jetlagged, and we were driving along Memorial Drive and there was a lot of traffic and I was just like, 'Oh, I hate this traffic, let's just take the river.' And I drove off across the grass and just drove into the Charles. She completely freaked out and started taking off her shoes to jump out. But it worked fine.

And the first few times I would do it, people... they would call the police. And the police would show up, because people would report a car had driven into the river. But what I did was just offer to give the police rides. It was never a problem, and after a while, they knew about me. And it was good. This was in the days when I was dating and I could just drive along the river and see the girls on the beach. And any time I ever... like, I would just say, 'Hey, you want a ride?' And I was never refused. They would just always hop right in my amphibious car. But it was a very marginal thing, because it leaked a lot, so it had a pump that was constantly operating to pump it out, because it had lots of seals for the wheels to come out and the doors and so it was very dependent on that pump operating. And it was an electric pump, but the engine had to be running to charge the battery to run the pump, and it was a pretty unreliable engine, and occasionally the engine would get wet or something, and stop. And then I'd have sudden death auto repair out in the middle of the Charles River, where I'd have to pop the hood and climb over and climb into the engine and I'd have to get the engine repaired before the battery ran out and the Amphicar sunk.

And so I had my ether to wash off all the water and I'd fiddle with the wire and adjust the fuel pump or whatever and every time, somehow, I would manage to get it working, so it never sunk.

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: convertible, amphibious car, pump, amphicar

Duration: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017