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A Brief History of Challenge Coins

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There are many examples of traditions that build camaraderie in the military, but few are as well-respected as the practice of carrying a challenge coin—a small medallion or token that signifies a person is a member of an organization. Even though challenge coins have broken into the civilian population, they're still a bit of a mystery for those outside the armed forces.

What Do Challenge Coins Look Like?

Typically, challenge coins are around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, and about 1/10-inch thick, but the styles and sizes vary wildly—some even come in unusual shapes like shields, pentagons, arrowheads, and dog tags. The coins are generally made of pewter, copper, or nickel, with a variety of finishes available (some limited edition coins are plated in gold). The designs can be simple—an engraving of the organization's insignia and motto—or have enamel highlights, multi-dimensional designs, and cut outs.

Challenge Coin Origins

It's nearly impossible to definitively know why and where the tradition of challenge coins began. One thing is certain: Coins and military service go back a lot farther than our modern age.

One of the earliest known examples of an enlisted soldier being monetarily rewarded for valor took place in Ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, he would receive his typical day’s pay, and a separate coin as a bonus. Some accounts say that the coin was specially minted with a mark of the legion from which it came, prompting some men to hold on to their coins as a memento, rather than spend them on women and wine.

Today, the use of coins in the military is much more nuanced. While many coins are still handed out as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, especially for those serving as part of a military operation, some administrators exchange them almost like business cards or autographs they can add to a collection. There are also coins that a soldier can use like an ID badge to prove they served with a particular unit. Still other coins are handed out to civilians for publicity, or even sold as a fund-raising tool.

The First Official Challenge Coin…Maybe

Although no one is certain how challenge coins came to be, one story dates back to World War I, when a wealthy officer had bronze medallions struck with the flying squadron’s insignia to give to his men. Shortly after, one of the young flying aces was shot down over Germany and captured. The Germans took everything on his person except the small leather pouch he wore around his neck that happened to contain his medallion.

The pilot escaped and made his way to France. But the French believed he was a spy, and sentenced him to execution. In an effort to prove his identity, the pilot presented the medallion. A French soldier happened to recognize the insignia and the execution was delayed. The French confirmed his identity and sent him back to his unit.

One of the earliest challenge coins was minted by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, who had them made for his men during the Korean War. The coin features a buffalo on one side as a nod to its creator, and the Regiment’s insignia on the other side. A hole was drilled in the top so the men could wear it around their necks, instead of in a leather pouch.

The Challenge

Stories say that the challenge began in Germany after World War II. Americans stationed there took up the local tradition of conducting “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest denomination of coin in Germany, and if you didn’t have one when a check was called, you were stuck buying the beers. This evolved from a pfenning to a unit’s medallion, and members would "challenge" each other by slamming a medallion down on the bar. If any member present didn’t have his medallion, he had to buy a drink for the challenger and for anyone else that had their coin. If all the other members had their medallions, the challenger had to buy everyone drinks.

The Secret Handshake

In June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan before his impending retirement. Along the way, he shook hands with dozens of men and women in the Armed Forces in what, to the naked eye, appeared to be a simple exchange of respect. It was, in fact, a secret handshake with a surprise inside for the recipient—a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin.

Not all challenge coins are passed by secret handshake, but it has become a tradition that many uphold. It could have its origins in the Second Boer War, fought between the British and South African colonists at the turn of the 20th century. The British hired many soldiers of fortune for the conflict, who, due to their mercenary status, were unable to earn medals of valor. It was not unusual, though, for the commanding officer of those mercenaries to receive the accommodation instead. Stories say that non-commissioned officers would often sneak into the tent of an unjustly awarded officer and cut the medal from the ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would call the deserving mercenary forward and, palming the medal, shake his hand, passing it to the soldier as a way of indirectly thanking him for his service.

Special Forces Coins

Challenge coins began to catch on during the Vietnam War. The first coins from this era were created by either the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were little more than common currency with the unit’s insignia stamped on one side, but the men in the unit carried them with pride.

More importantly, though, it was a lot safer than the alternative—bullet clubs, whose members carried a single unused bullet at all times. Many of these bullets were given as a reward for surviving a mission, with the idea that it was now a “last resort bullet,” to be used on yourself instead of surrendering if defeat seemed imminent. Of course carrying a bullet was little more than a show of machismo, so what started off as handgun or M16 rounds, soon escalated to .50 caliber bullets, anti-aircraft rounds, and even artillery shells in an effort to one-up each other.

Unfortunately, when these bullet club members presented “The Challenge” to each other in bars, it meant they were slamming live ammunition down on the table. Worried that a deadly accident might occur, command banned the ordnance, and replaced it with limited edition Special Forces coins instead. Soon nearly every unit had their own coin, and some even minted commemorative coins for especially hard-fought battles to hand out to those who lived to tell the tale.

President (and Vice President) Challenge Coins

Starting with Bill Clinton, every president has had his own challenge coin and, since Dick Cheney, the vice president has had one, too.

There are usually a few different Presidential coins—one for the inauguration, one that commemorates his administration, and one available to the general public, often in gift shops or online. But there's one special, official presidential coin that can only be received by shaking the hand of the most powerful man in the world. As you can probably guess, this is the rarest and most sought-after of all challenge coins.

The President can hand out a coin at his own discretion, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel, or foreign dignitaries. It’s been said that George W. Bush reserved his coins for injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East. President Obama hands them out fairly often, most notably to soldiers that man the stairs on Air Force One.

Beyond the Military

Challenge coins are now being used by many different organizations. In the federal government, everyone from Secret Service agents to White House staff to the President's personal valets have their own coins. Probably the coolest coins are those for White House Military Aides—the people who carry the atomic football—whose coins are, naturally, in the shape of a football.

However, thanks in part to custom coin companies online, everyone’s getting in on the tradition. Today, it’s not uncommon for police and fire departments to have coins, as do many civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts. Even the Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion, Harley Davidson riders, and Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have become a long-lasting, highly-collectible way to show your allegiance anytime, anyplace.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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