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A computer made out of Tinkertoys and escutcheon pins


A ride with drunk Spanish Tall Ship officers
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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There was another thing that happened with the fire engine which was... Well first of all I would take the clowns around too. They would climb on the back of the fire engine and I would run all the sirens and the lights. Of course I wasn't really allowed to run the sirens but I did because I figured getting thrown into jail with a bunch of clowns would actually be such a great experience. And so we would go by, we would go by police cars and the police cars would just wave with all the clowns on the back of it. So we would drive around and paint the town red like that.

But the other thing that we did was I remember Boston had its 350th anniversary. And the tall ships came to visit Boston. These are, you know, the big old fashioned ships with giant masts and the largest of which is the Spanish Tall Ship which I guess is a frigate. And... By the Spanish Navy. And I had a friend who came over on it, and he said... He invited me to a party where Harvard was hosting them. And they were being given the key to the city or something. So all the officers for the Spanish Tall Ship were at this party at Harvard. And I said, 'I'll provide the transportation back to the Tall Ship.' So I showed up with my fire engine. And it turns out that the time the party was over they were quite drunk. In fact, they sort of let them out holding bottles of whiskey. So they climbed up, again they were in evening clothes and things like that. They were in tuxedos, being fettered by the mayor, and I... So I had them climb onto the back. And they were really worried because it was past their curfew because the base closed at ten o'clock. I was like, don't worry, I'll get you on the base.

So they climbed on the back with their bottles, swigging their bottles. And I went to the army base, and as I come up to the door I turn on all the sirens and flashing. Of course they throw open the doors and I go through. And they don't notice until after I'm going through that the people on the back are wearing tuxedos and holding bottles of liquor. So I go in, stop in front of... I wish I had a... You know, if there was a moment in my life I'd love to have a film of, it would be this. Of pulling up in front of the Spanish Tall Ship with the officers, staggering off, and the crew standing there saluting, trying to keep a straight face as their officers stagger off a fire engine, up the gangplank.

And then I drove home. And they invited me to come to the party the next day. So the next day I show up again with the fire engine, this time with my invitation. I show my invitation at the door. And I go and I park in my usual spot in front of the ship. I go up to the party, which the party is like the mayor and the governor and everybody is on board. And then somebody comes and says, 'Uh, excuse me, is that your fire engine?' I say, 'Yes.' They say, 'I think you need to talk to the people outside.' And I go out and there's all these MPs, military police, who have my fire engine surrounded with their lights flashing. And I go down, and this military guy says, 'Is this your fire engine?' I say, 'Yes.' He says, 'You've got a lot of guts coming back here after the other night.' And I'm like... And he starts going into me about how they're going to impound my fire engine and, you know... And then the mayor comes out who everybody recognises and says, 'What seems to be the problem here, Danny?' And I'd just met him in the... And everybody stops and I said, 'Well, I think they want me to move my fire engine.' And the mayor says, 'Well, then you all get your cars out of the way so that he can move it.' And so the MPs pull their cars out, I take it off base, and escape.

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: tall ships, Boston, fire engine, Spanish Tall Ship, curfew, officers, liquor, army base

Duration: 4 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017