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My amphibious car versus the presidential helicopter
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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One day Dave Paterson came. So Dave Paterson was a consultant to Thinking Machines, because we were building a new kind of disks. I just... I couldn't find disks that were fast enough to keep up with my computers, so I designed RAID disk arrays, and Dave Paterson was really interested in that, so he was coming to visit. And in those days, video cameras were very large, so he had a big shoulder-mounted video camera, and I offered to take him out onto the Amphicar, and so he brought his video camera, his big huge video camera. And he also happened to be wearing a shirt that had Russian lettering on it. It said: Peace on Earth. I don't know why he was wearing it, but he was wearing a T-shirt. It was written in Russian. And so we drove out onto the Charles in that area kind of down by MIT. And I was really surprised, because usually there's lots of boats on the Charles, but it was completely empty. And that was interesting. So I was driving along and then I noticed this big marine helicopter start to land on the heliport that's across on the Boston side. And the marine helicopter starts to land, and then all of a sudden it takes off without landing. I thought, that's really strange. And then another helicopter, another marine helicopter comes, and it comes right over us and starts hovering. And there's all these marines with guns pointing at us, and saying, 'Put your hands up immediately.' And it turns out, we didn't notice, but Dave had been filming all of this with his big shoulder-mounted... and so we put it down and it's like, 'Yes, put that down.' We're following the instructions, but the helicopter is starting to wash up on... and I only had that much freeboard, and it's practically about to sink us. So we go to shore as they instructed and there we're met by a whole bunch of other marines. And it turns out that the president, who was Reagan at that point, was visiting Boston. We didn't know about this. And they had cleared off the entire river. So they had cleared all the boats off the river so that they could land the helicopter with no-one around, and they had it blocked off on either side. And what had happened was that we had just driven in between the roadblocks and just happened to head toward the helicopter, because it was interesting seeing this helicopter landing, with this big shoulder-mounted, could have been a rocket launcher, with a Russian T-shirt. So when they saw that coming in, they... they scrambled the helicopter, they pulled Reagan out of there, sent in the marines to get these guys. But so they held us for a while, while they interviewed us, until they established that we were totally innocent, and they let us go.

[Q] What happened to the car?

Well, so when I left Boston, there was another guy that had amphibious cars, and he offered to take care of it for me, so he had a warehouse where he kept it, and so I put it in his garage, but he's moved away, I've lost contact with him, so someplace out there I still have an amphibious car and I still have the registration. Actually, I have two registrations, because I had to register it as a boat and as a car. And sadly, I had to pay tax on it twice. But... so I still have it registered to me. Someplace out there is an amphibious car that I own. Maybe someday I'll find it again.

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: Dave Paterson, Ronald Reagan

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017