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Detonating a bird bath


Trying to build computers
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I used that money to both fund my electronics hobby, I tried to build a robot, I tried to build a computer. I got like a suitcase, I was going to build a portable computer which was an unheard of concept. But I figured you could do it. This was before microprocessors so I was going to build it out of logic gates which I could order through the mail from Poly-Pac.

And I didn't have anybody really teaching me this stuff. So I had to figure it out from reading books and I had nobody who'd explained it, answered my questions. But I learnt how to make printed circuit boards. But I kind of learnt the hard way. For instance I could buy the etchant at Radio Shack for etching printed circuit boards, and I could buy the bare boards and you put like tape over the boards. And then you etched them in ferric chloride. And the instructions said you were supposed to use glass tanks to etch them in but I couldn't afford a glass tank so I got like aluminium turkey basters which, amazingly enough, worked. I think because they had little oil on the aluminium. So for a long time I used aluminium turkey basters for my ferric chloride until one day I scratched through the oil or something like that and the ferric chloride touched the aluminium and it went [whoosh]. And I got ferric chloride all over my room, my room smelt like ferric chloride from then on. But I actually made printed circuit boards, I made little circuits. And I taught myself logic and I still remember like all the pin outs of the integrated circuits of end gates, and the end gates I could still draw you, you know, which input and output is connected to which pin. The 7400 series logic. And I ordered from Intel a little 64 bit memory, Intel's first chip that they made. And I was busily trying to build a computer.

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: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

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: computer, circuit boards, Radio Shack, etching, ferric chloride, aluminium, logic, end gates, 7400 series logic

Duration: 2 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017