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Getting a fellowship from the Hertz Foundation
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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That was how I was making my money, but that became harder and harder, as I was starting the company, to go all the way out to Springfield. So I stopped that and Milton Bradley stopped the project to build a video game. But here I already had this chip design. And fortunately, this little Japanese company that nobody had ever heard of came along to buy it, this little company called Nintendo. And so that chip became the original Nintendo chip and it got into that game and sprites got used and copied and that became part of the video game culture for a long time. People still talk about them sometimes. They're sort of a conceptual thing now, but it was sort of built into the idea of video games and a lot of the original video games, things like Zelda, are all sort of built around that idea of the little sprites that you move around. So that had a nice impact.

But by then, I had already stopped working there and I needed a source of money. So I decided to apply for an NSF fellowship. And I went down to apply and I looked at the NSF fellowship and I looked at the list of fellowships, and I saw there was one fellowship that paid twice as much as all the others. It was for applied physics. It was called the Hertz Fellowship. But I hadn't sent away for the application form, but Guy Steele was there, and he was like, 'Oh yes, I applied for that. I'll let you Xerox my application form.' So we both... I applied for it and Guy Steele applied for it, and I somehow described what I wanted to do as applied physics. And I'd never heard of the Hertz Foundation.

And so the Hertz Foundation came by to interview and this guy Lowell Wood showed up as the interviewer and I told him about this computer that I wanted to make and he said, 'Well, how much floating point ability does it have?' And I was, like, 'Well, it doesn't really have floating point, because the universe doesn't really have floating point. God doesn't use floating point.' And he argued with me that. 'You know, everybody would want to use floating point', and we got into a big argument and he told me about his computer, which was the S1, and I told him what a stupid idea that was, his complicated instruction set, and told him all the reasons that was wrong. And so we got into a big argument and I was pretty sure I had lost the fellowship. But on my way out, I basically said, 'Well, there's this other guy who's applying, Guy Steele, and he's really brilliant. You should give the fellowship to him.' And then I later found out that Guy Steele, on his way out, told Lowell Wood, 'You know, there's this other guy, Danny Hillis and you should really give the fellowship to him.' And Lowell was so impressed that this had never happened, that two people had said: you should really give the fellowship to the other guy, that he ended up giving us both the fellowship. So much to my surprise, having had this terrible argument with him, I got this note from the Hertz Foundation saying that they were going to give me a fellowship that would pay for my graduate education. So I was very excited.

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: Hertz Foundation, Nintendo, The Legends of Zelda, Guy Steele, Lowell Wood

Duration: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017