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The culture of inventing

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Hacking the elevator's controller
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And watching things like video games which started out as toys. And, you know, watching those become big industries and big parts of people's lives. Things like word processing become the linear or laser printers. You know, I mean, we had laser printers but they were prototype printers from Xerox Park and we could make very official looking signs. We could fool people by... For instance, in Tech Square, Tech Square had an elevator system. It was in a rented building and we weren't allowed to mess with the elevators. But I picked the lock on the elevators and I secretly wired in the elevators so that we could control them with our computers. And so that you wouldn't have to get up... You wouldn't have to go out and push the button, you could... From your terminal you could push the button before you walked outside.

So I hid the wires going up to it but I had to put a box in the elevator controller. And I didn't want anybody to be able to find the box. So it was box of relays. So I put it in plain sight but I printed on the laser printer a label that looked very official, and of course since people didn't have laser printers, they were very impressed with things that looked like they were printed. So it said, 'Warning, do not remove without authorisation.' And it said, 'Inspected by...', and then it had, you know, all of these little initials and dates. And so it looked like somebody... And so after a while the building management figured out that, you know, the elevators were being controlled by the computers and they sent somebody up to figure out how I connected them. And I was sure that they'd find my box but apparently they were intimidated enough by my sign. They left it in there. And it actually stayed in there until years and years later, they tore out the whole elevator controller and replaced it with a computer. But we had actually a kind of wonderful time hacking the system like that.

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: video games, word processing, printer, elevator, Tech Square, controller

Duration: 2 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017