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W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The other fun elephant thing I used to do... So I had a fire engine at MIT which... Because I'd always wanted to have a fire engine and I found a used one for sale. And it was a great car because I could park it anywhere. Very hard to park in Cambridge but my fire engine would never get ticketed or towed. So I would drive my fire engine around. And that got me lots of fun things. But one of the fun things with the fire engine was that I had friends who were clowns in the Ringling Brothers Circus.

And so when they came to town they would call me and say that, you know, they were coming to town. And they... The train came in on the Cambridge side of the river, but they performed in Boston. So there was a moment where they had to lead the elephants across the Longfellow Bridge. And so they always did it at night and it was a secret, they didn't want a lot of people to know about it. But since I had inside knowledge they would tell me when it would happen. So I would show up at like ten o'clock at night when the elephants were going to come and there would be police barricades and I would drive up with my fire engine and I would say, 'I'm here to lead the elephants across the river.' And they would move the barricades away.

And then I would go to the circus people and I would say, 'I'm here to lead the elephants.' So I think the police thought I was from the circus and the circus thought I was from the police. But nobody ever questioned me. So I would slowly drive my fire engine with the lights flashing with a line of elephants behind me, marching through MIT, you know, across the Longfellow Bridge into Boston. And the only difficult part was at the end when I would try to go away, the elephants would follow me. So it was sort of sticky getting out of it at the end. But... That fire engine got... I had a lot of fun with 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: Ringling Brothers Circus

Duration: 2 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017