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Trying to build computers

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Earning money as a paper boy
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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So when we got back to Baltimore I lived in suburbia in Towson. But I was showing up with the kind of mid-1960s mentality about America and hippies had arrived and the Vietnam War was on. People were wearing bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed t-shirts. And I was in a crew cut and completely out of it, you know? I knew who the Beatles were but that was about it. And so it was very hard for me to fit back in.

But it was also around suddenly I was around technology, there was something called Radio Shack where you could buy transistors and you could even buy pieces of computers. And I was so excited about that, I really wanted to make money. And at that time a kid could make money by being a paper boy. And you weren't really an employee of the paper, you were... You bought the papers from the Baltimore Sun and you delivered them and you collected the money. So you were sort of an independent agent. So if you didn't collect the money you lost money.

So I got a paper route and then I got another paper route and in fact I eventually got three paper routes. I would wake up at four o'clock in the morning and if I collected all the money I would get paid 3c a paper. So I had several hundred papers that I would deliver. So I could make like $5 a day which was a lot of money in those days. Which I would then spend at Radio Shack. And buy computer parts. And I had this idea to build a computer. And finally I had access to electronics. But it involved waking up early in the morning and I'm not very good at waking up. So I got... So I would sort of do the paper route in my sleep and then fall back to sleep before school. And I could never even remember if I had done my paper route except that my phone would be ringing off the hook if I hadn't. So any time I missed a paper people would call up and complain about it.

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: paper route, newspaper, paper boy, money

Duration: 2 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017