Original image

The Origins of Credit Cards, Checks, Coins and Bills

Original image

With the financial world in a state of flux, we thought now was a good time to explore the early history of credit cards, checks, coins and paper money.

Credit Cards

In the 1800s, you could pick your poison if you needed money: pawnbroker, realtor, friend, family member, illegal small loan lender, or mortgage lender. By 1858, consumer debt measured as high as $1.5 billion in the U.S., and it rose to $11 trillion just 32 years later.

At first, credit cards were really just substitute markers for payment. Rather than deal with looking up account numbers for each transaction, stores started issuing credit cards or tokens instead. After getting the bill, the customer simply had to pay or would likely lose credit with the store. John Biggins of the Flatbush National Bank of Brooklyn, New York, invented the first actual bank credit cards in 1946. Through his "Charge-It" program, merchants could deposit their sales slips in the bank, and the bank would bill the customer.

Another key moment in the development of credit cards started with Frank McNamara, a New York businessman who faced embarrassment when he realized he'd forgotten his cash while entertaining a client at Major's Cabin Grill. His wife covered the bill, but McNamara didn't forget the event. A few weeks later, he discussed an idea for a diner's club with his lawyer, Frank Schneider. Using the Diner's Club card, people could eat in a variety of restaurants and pay their tabs at the end of the month.

The card became so popular that other financial organizations mimicked the idea. Franklin National Bank issued the first revolving charge card in 1951, allowing customers to borrow and repay money without approval as long as they stayed under their credit limit—and didn't mind accruing interest charges. Bank of America (which became VISA) and MasterCard took the idea one huge step further in 1967, creating Interchange, a system that allowed banks to settle credit transactions throughout the U.S., rather than just locally.


office-oversized-check-science.jpgUnlike bills (which represent actual money that banks hope you'll never ask for), the check started as the Persian Sakks—a written promise to pay when the goods were delivered. The idea was to avoid money being transported, so starting in the first century CE, banks issued letters of credit through a bill of exchange, meaning that money would be paid to the person whose name was on the bill. Plus, a check written in, say, Baghdad, could be cashed in China.

The check didn't come into widespread use, however, until Holland in the 1500s. Around that time, Amsterdam was a major international hub of shipping and trading, and people began to deposit their cash with Dutch cashiers for a fee, rather than keeping the money at home. Those cashiers would pay their depositors' debts directly upon written notice (almost as good as online bill-paying), but there was a small problem: the little pieces of paper could easily be forged or copied.

A British banker named Lawrence Childs developed the first printed checks, which led to today's elaborate system of routing and account numbers, watermarks, and other identifiers. Indeed, the modern word check originated simply from the need to examine, or check, the bill of exchange, and the name stuck.


Nowadays, a pocketful of jangling silver and copper wouldn't impress most folk, but the original coins marked the wealth of the nearly forgotten empire of Lydia. In the western part of Asia Minor, Lydia became celebrated for its deposits of gold and silver and entered its golden age under the rule of King Croesus in the sixth century BCE. The Lydians were the first in history to mint gold, silver, and electrum (a mixture of gold and silver). The early coin designers were also gem carvers who used a furnace to melt the metal until it was pliable, a balance to weigh coins, and a mint—made of an anvil and a die press. Even though the first coins weren't always perfectly uniform, they're awfully close to what we still use today.

Once the Lydians were assimilated by the Greeks, the coin-making tradition truly took hold. The first coin patterns were coats of arms, which were soon followed by symbols of ruling leaders. By the fourth century BCE, the possession of the mint (and all of its wealth) was considered sacred, often protected within a temple. Athens claimed authority over all coin minting, including standardized weights and measures, but rival areas were quick to form their own systems.

Even coin denominations appeared during the early development of coins. A gold stater coin could be issued in halves, thirds, or sixths, for example, while some coins were worth exactly twice another. Looking for the origin of the copper penny? The first bronze coins were developed in the fifth century BCE, but they weren't widely used for another 100 years. Copper has always been considered the least precious of the coin metals—even then, a bronze coin was worth a fraction of a silver one.



There were three big advancements in banknotes that helped put Andrew Jackson's face in your pocket. The first documented banknotes were one-foot square pieces of white deerskin with colorful borders, used in China in 118 BCE. You can also thank China that you're not carrying around Bambi today—in the ninth century CE, the Chinese invented paper banknotes as well. Over the course of 500 years, China experimented with paper money and soon realized that printing too much money caused inflation (still true). Probably for this reason, the Chinese ditched paper money in 1455, and it didn't reappear for another 250 years, this time in Europe.

1000-bill-front.jpgIn 1705, John Law of Scotland published "Money and Trade Considered: With a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money." He considered metal money to be unreliable and believed that the more money in circulation, the richer the country. Whiel most governments weren't buying the get-rich-quick scheme, Louis XV of France decided to give Law a chance because the country was strapped for cash. In 1716, Law created the Banque Generale, which carried only one quarter of its money in actual cash. The rest was in billets d'etat—a fancy way of saying government debt.

Law's process of issuing interest-paying bank notes (payable in silver on demand) was extremely popular, but the system was volatile. All it took was a few wealthy investors pulling their funds to create a panic. Though Law eventually fled to Holland in 1720 to avoid the collapse, his idea of paper money stuck around, and future governments figured out how to manage the system better.


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

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

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]