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9 Great Inventions that come from ... Connecticut?

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It happens to everyone. One minute you're exchanging pleasantries with a perfect stranger; the next minute they're up in your face talking trash about Connecticut. Well, you don't have to take it anymore. History buff, and friend of the Floss, Streeter Seidell expands on why Connecticut might just be the most ingenious state in the Union.

1. The State that gave us the Cotton Gin

Depending on how you look at it, the cotton gin was one of the best or one of the worst inventions in American history. In 1794 Eli Whitney, a Yale man, patented a device to separate cotton from its seeds and set up a factory in New Haven. Inadvertently, Whitney's invention breathed new life into the slave trade simply because of how effective it was. More cotton being processed required more slaves to pick it, unfortunately. Not content to be remembered for one thing, Whitney went on to popularize the idea of interchangeable parts, which he then used to manufacture guns. As such, Whitney was both the cause of (ongoing southern slavery) and solution to (through the North's manufacturing superiority) the Civil War.

2. The Colt .45 Revolver

a.colt.jpgOne doesn't normally think of a tiny New England state as the birthplace of the gun that tamed the West, but Samuel Colt, inventor of the Peacemaker, was indeed a born and bred Connecticutian. Colt's Manufacturing Company was and is based in Hartford, CT, the state capital. Of Colt's famous gun someone once said, "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal." And they couldn't have been more correct. For better or worse, Colt's revolver was easy to use, effective and powerful, making all men equally deadly. A bigger, more powerful .45, the Whitneyville Walker Colt was produced specifically for the Texas Rangers. Only 168 are known to exist and can fetch around $100,000 at auction. Talk about some serious bang for your buck"¦

3. The Can Opener

a.canopener.jpgWe've all heard that juicy tidbit about how the can had been around for fifty years before someone invented the can opener (true!). And that someone was none other than Connecticut's own Ezra Warner. Warner, a Waterbury, CT. native, created what PBS calls an "intimidating" contraption featuring a bayonet and sickle to open cans in 1858 (canned food debuted in 1810). The bayonet would hold the can in place while the sickle would saw around the edge. The whole process was pretty primitive but it sure beat the earlier method of opening can, which involved a hammer and a chisel. Despite the obvious improvement over the hammer/chisel arrangement, Warner's can opener was not for novices; grocers would open cans at the store before shoppers took them home.

4. The Portable Typewriter

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George C. Blickensderfer may have a funny name but what he invented was all business... literally. After moving to Stamford, CT. from Erie, PA. Blickensderfer put his fertile mind to creating some competition for the Remington desk typewriter, the standard of the day. At the 1893 World's Fair, he unveiled his challenge to Remington, the Model 1. He also brought along a scaled down version of the Model 1 called the Model 5, which featured far fewer parts and was intended to a less wealthy market. It was the Model 5 "“ lightweight, portable and cheap "“ that took off and just like that, Blickensderfer had invented the portable typewriter (or "˜5 pound secretary,' as it was called). Remington, Corona and other typewriter manufacturers would eventually drive Blickensderfer out of business after they wised up and produced their own portable machines, but Blickensderfer will forever be known as the man who gave legs to the typed word. He'll also be known as the man with the funniest last name in this article.

5. The Submarine

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Like with most inventions executed before the Internet, there are competing claims to the invention of the submarine. What isn't being challenged is the fact that Saybrook, CT native David Bushnell's Turtle saw action during the Revolutionary War, which seems to give it a leg up credibility-wise. In 1776 a man trained by Bushnell, Ezra Lee, piloted the Turtle into New York Harbor and attempted to attach a bomb to the hull of The Eagle, a British Warship anchored in the bay. The plan didn't work and, later, the Turtle was sunk by the British while in transit. Perhaps even stranger though is what happened to Bushnell. After the war was over and he had blown his fortune on failed business ventures, Bushnell started calling himself Dr. Bush, moved to Georgia and got a job teaching at a local school. Nobody in Georgia ever had any idea that their kindly teacher was the man responsible for submarine warfare until after his death in 1824.

6. The Nuclear Submarine

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Wait a minute, didn't I just write about how Connecticut is responsible for the submarine? What's the big difference between a regular submarine and a nuclear submarine? Quite a bit, it turns out. As The Historic Naval Ships Association points out, before the U.S.S. Nautilus hit the water in 1954 submarines were really submersibles; boats that could go underwater but not for very long. The Nautilus, built in Groton, CT. by the Electric Boat Company and running on nuclear power, could stay underwater for months at a time because it created its own power. Part publicity stunt, part "˜hope you're watching, Russia,' the Nautilus even took a trip under the North Pole ice. All of these facts have been drilled into the heads of bored Connecticut middle schoolers being forced to visit the docked ship on class trips.

7. The Frisbee

a.frisbee.gifThe stoners hippy athletes of our country owe a great debt of gratitude to Connecticut for giving them half of the name of their very own sport: Ultimate Frisbee. While throwing a disc through the air is nothing new (see: ancient Greece), calling it a Frisbee certainly is and the coining of such a term deals with three major players: Yale University, the Frisbie Pie Company and Wham-O toys. Bridgeport, Connecticut's Frisbie Pie Company had been supplying the hungry students of Yale University with pie for many years. At some point during those years, a student discovered that the empty pie tins made for great throwing. Thus, the "˜Frisbie' was born on Yale's campus. Meanwhile, Wham-O toys had acquired the rights to a plastic flying disc called a Pluto Platter from an inventor (and UFO enthusiast) named Walter Fredrick Morrison. Looking for a more appealing name, the execs at Wham-O heard about the Connecticut colloquialism and registered the trademark "Frisbee."

8. Vulcanized Rubber

a.vulc.jpgConnecticut native (and descendent of a founder of the New Haven colony) Charles Goodyear is one of the state's most famous native sons. The man responsible for vulcanized rubber - you know, the kind we use in everything - spent most of his adult life destitute and his business acumen was less than enviable but, as Goodyear's story shows, it's hard to keep a good man down. Goodyear spent years experimenting with raw rubber before working out the process for making it a marketable product. After he had worked out the vulcanization process, he lobbied for replacing practically everything with rubber: his clothing, his flatware, even his business card. Goodyear, clearly, liked rubber and luckily, so did everyone else. He died in debt "“ like he had spent most of his life "“ but his tireless experiments and refinements have given us one of our most versatile and useful products. Also, it makes me smile in the sickest way when I think about how rarely a guy named Goodyear actually had one.

9. Sports on Cable"¦All The Time

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Many American males have wasted spent countless hours plopped in front of the TV watching SportsCenter. They have Connecticut to thank for that. ESPN, the brainchild of Bill Rasmussen, was founded and continues to operate out of Bristol, CT. Rassmussen was originally searching for a way to put UConn Huskie basketball on local Connecticut cable when he found out that for the same price he could throw the signal to the entire country. ESPN (originally just SPN) started off by broadcasting whatever sports footage they could get their hands on but found its first real hit with college basketball. The benefits were mutual and partly because of ESPN coverage, college basketball grew into the cultural giant it is today. EPSN, as we all know, has grown to become the name in sports television and no longer needs to broadcast slow pitch softball or demolition derbies, instead focusing more on the major professional sports: football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and, yes, hockey...still. And to think, it all started in the little city of Bristol in the little state of Connecticut.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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