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'Daddy, did God make that or did you make that?'

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Becoming a Disney Fellow
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Then when Thinking Machines got broken up and sold off, Sun wanted me to come to Sun. But I just didn't have the heart to keep doing the same thing. I just wanted a break. And my children were infants. I wanted something that I could do with my children. And my friend Bran Ferren had just gotten his company bought by Disney, and he had convinced Frank Wells, who was one of the senior executives, to build up the research at Disney. So he said, 'Why don't you come to Disney?' I was, like, 'Well, there's not really a job for me at Disney.' He's like, 'Make one up.' So I said, 'Okay, I want to be Disney Fellow and I want to be able to go to any meeting.' And I kind of sort of used my example. 'I want to be able to go and ask people for anything and get it.' And he said, 'Okay, but nobody will take you seriously unless you're a vice president, so we'll make you Vice President of R&D, too.' I was, like, 'Okay, great.'

And so Frank Wells got excited about this and bought off on it, and so I got my family all ready to move. I sold my house in Cambridge, which I couldn't afford the mortgage on any more because I was out of a job, I had no money. So I had three young kids, no house, going off to Disney, and then Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash. So I was just about to move and I didn't have any place to move to. I had no house and my friend Jacqui Safra said, 'I have a vineyard that I just bought out in Napa Valley. Why don't you stay at the vineyard?' And so I went out there and it turns out the vineyard was this extraordinary place. It was the place where they filmed the television show called Falcon Crest, this beautiful, amazing seven-storey house in the middle of hundreds of acres of lovely vineyard. And so it was kind of an ideal, beautiful place to go with my young children who were, like, I guess the boys were two, my daughter was probably just one then. She was an infant. And go out and just had a wonderful time bonding with my children in this idyllic setting while Disney tried to figure out what to do about me.

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: Frank Wells, Jacqui Safra

Duration: 2 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017