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Making a computer controlled mass spectrometer


Detonating a bird bath
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I was also very interested in chemistry, I had chemistry sets. In those days you could buy chemicals and I was trying to make a rocket engine. That was my big project. And I would basically make gun powder to make a rocket engine which is kind of amazing I didn't kill myself. It's very dangerous. I would pack this gun powder with aluminium, aluminium seemed to help it. So I had aluminium powder and would pack it in and try to make rockets.

And I remember once, fortunately I had very good remote ignition technology, electrical. It had batteries and nichrome wire to remote detonate it. But at one time I had this batch of rocket fuel that didn't seem to be working. And so I kind of gave up on it. But I had this model boat, model pirate boat. So I decided to pack all my dud rocket fuel into the boat and float it in the bird bath and blow up the boat. So I got back a distance and I detonated it and got a way bigger explosion than I'd ever gotten before. And pieces of the bird bath flew past me and I totally destroyed the bird bath.

So that... I was just lucky nothing... Yes. I didn't get hurt, but I scared myself. And I got more careful after that. But my parents never noticed that I took the pieces of the bird bath and I kind of hid them and threw them away. And my parents didn't notice the bird bath was missing for like months and months, and then at the dinner table somebody said, 'Didn't we used to have a bird bath?' And I just kept my mouth shut. But years later I met someone who lived down the hill from me and I said where I lived and they said, 'Oh, did you live up next to that kid that was always making those explosions?' I was like, 'No, I was that kid.'

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: rocket, rocket fuel, detonation, bird bath, explosion

Duration: 2 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017