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Receiving a special award from Jyoti Basu

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Building my first computer for the science fair
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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We had the science fair. And I was very interested in computers. I'd never actually seen one but my mother arranged for me to see the IBM 1401 at the Indian Statistical Institute. And I remember crawling inside it, they let me go inside it and it had a core stack. And just being fascinated by it. And I went to the British library which was the only English library at the British consul and it was not a lending library but I got special permission to go in and read the books.

And I found this book called Laws of Thought which I thought was very exciting, by George Boole which turns out to be one of the great classic books, but I didn't know that, it was in the library at Calcutta. And I read it and it was all about logic, of like ands and ors and how you could combine things and... So basically the principle of how computers worked, although it wasn't put that way because it was all before the days of computers. But I remember seeing that and realising the connection and getting very, very interested in wanting to build a computer.

But I was in Calcutta and you couldn't even buy a transistor or switch or anything. So I decided that I could build a computer, but I would have to build relays for memory. So I got wire and I made little relays with magnets, I made memory devices, I made a magnetised PN so that when the relay went down it would stay and then you would reverse, it would open. So that was my first memory bend.

But then I made switches, and the way that I would make switches is I put a nail into a board and then I could get screen, like from a screen door. And you would poke the nail into the screen to make contact. So I would put a wire to the screen and a wire to the nail. And I could make multi-throw switches by having several nails. And so I could build switches. And I could get lights from flashlights. And I had a soldering iron so I could solder wires together. And so I built a computer that played Tic Tac Toe, or Noughts and Crosses as they called it in Calcutta. Where you moved the switches to play and the computer played and then you played and then the computer played and you played.

And that was my science fair entry. So I won the science fair and my brother came in second. We were kind of the only ones that took it seriously.

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: Laws of Thought, George Boole

Duration: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017