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Work in a room full of poisons


Making a computer controlled mass spectrometer
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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I really wanted to learn about computers and I had the next door neighbour had a friend who worked at Johns Hopkins and so he introduced me and got me a job down at Johns Hopkins at the chemistry laboratory. And the guy down in Johns Hopkins we called Dr Kowsky I think his real name was Kristiakowsky. And I think he had been the Kristiakowsky who was the head of the science... The head of the chemistry division of Los Alamos. And had been the science advisor. He was really a very smart guy. And he had a picture of the Trinity explosion up on his wall and so I think I was very, very lucky. I had no idea who this guy was really but he was very nice to me and he said... He was a chemist and he was trying to build a mass spectrometer. And he could get anything he wanted surplus. So he wanted to have this mass spectrometer controlled by a computer. And so I said, 'Oh, I can do that.' I'd never programmed a computer, I'd never done anything.

So he got me surplus, he got me a Minute Man missile computer which was this big round thing that you take control of a missile. And it had instructions like a square root instruction for computing your distance to Moscow. So I kind of got that working. This huge... Which it's kind of remarkable. But there was a titan missile computer he also got me and the titan missile computer was even better, it was a little... It was really remarkable for its day, it was only this big. But it had racks and racks of equipment for putting information into it and so on. And he got those. So I built these racks and racks of equipment and I connected up... It didn't have any way to talk to it. But I found this old thing called a flexowriter which is kind of like a teletype. And I built circuits to have the flexowriter controlled by the computer. And so that it could actually type things out and I could type into it.

And it was really kind of remarkable, I got... And of course I didn't know anything about programming so I invented ways of writing programs. I invented an assembler so that I could write them in this kind of... I could type them into the typewriter and it would convert them into the codes. But I didn't really know anything about programming so I didn't know about the idea of a relative jump, a symbolic jump. I didn't invent that. So whenever I wanted to make a patch all my jump instructions would be off. So I invented this thing where I would have ten instructions and then it would leave... It would jump over a little empty space of code, and another ten instructions. So that if I wanted to put some new ones in I could put them in between. And that was my solution to that, so that I could add things. Anyway, I put together this really kind of remarkable system that controlled this mass spectrometer.

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: George Kristiakowsky

Duration: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017