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The Early History of LEGO

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Simple, block-shaped toys have been around for hundreds of years, but it took a 20th-century Danish genius named Ole Kirk Christiansen to invent the interlocking pieces we know today as LEGO bricks. It all started in 1932 in the village of Billund, long before LEGO had achieved world domination as a brand.


A master joiner and carpenter, Christiansen opened a humble woodworking shop with his son Godtfred, just 12 years old at the time. They manufactured stepladders, ironing boards and later expanded to make wooden toys, and in 1934 dubbed their business LEGO, a contraction of the Danish "leg godt" ("play well").

legos.jpgAnd play well they did. The company expanded from only six employees in 1934 to forty in 1942. LEGO was also fairly progressive, and became an early adopter of new technologies and materials. In fact, the group became the first Danish company to own a plastic injection-molding machine. When the Christiansens came across prototypes of a British toy called "Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks" in 1947, they adopted the idea and started manufacturing their own version two years later. The bricks had pegs on top and hollow bottoms, allowing children to lock the bricks together and create elaborate structures never possible with the simple wooden blocks of yesteryear.

Dubbing them the (decidedly un-catchy) "Automatic Binding Bricks," they were the forerunner to today's LEGO brick. But they hadn't quite got the formula right yet. The bricks lacked the tubes found inside modern LEGOs which greatly improve stability. Further, it seemed the world wasn't ready for plastic toys just yet; sales of plastic LEGO toys in the early 50s were mediocre at best.

In 1958, the LEGO brick finally came into its own. And while founder Ole Kirk Christiansen never lived to see his company's heyday, his son Godtfred Christiansen pioneered and patented the now-standard LEGO stud-and-tube configuration, and introduced roof bricks to the "LEGO System of Play," which was comprised of 28 sets and 8 vehicles.

After a devastating warehouse fire in 1960, the company decided to ditch production of wooden toys altogether and focus instead on plastics.

LEGO hasn't changed the design of their brick since then, which means today's sets are compatible with sets from 1958 onward.

More LEGO fun: In 1961, the LEGO wheel was invented. At first blush that may not sound as momentous as humanity's initial development of the wheel (approximately 5,000 B.C.E.), but considering that today LEGO turns out more than 300 million tiny wheels per year, it actually makes them the most prolific wheel manufacturer in the world. Along with 3,000 other types of pieces, they're packaged into 37,000 LEGO sets per hour. And according to LEGO, the process they use to mold their plastic is so accurate that a mere 18 out of every million bricks fails to meet quality standards.

But whatever you do, don't call them LEGOS. This note used to greet visitors to legos.com:

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This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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