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8 Television Pioneers

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The development of television resembles the development of the airplane in that many engineers were working on the project around the same time, separately, and the finished product owes credit to quite a few pioneers. There are still arguments over who invented television. If one person must be named, Philo T. Farnsworth gets the credit in most cases, since he patented the all-electronic television system. However, many other breakthroughs came before Farnsworth.

1. Paul Nipkow

220nipkow.jpgGerman inventor Paul Nipkow patented the first mechanical television system in -get this- 1884. He detailed the idea of scanning images and transmitting them piece by piece. Nipkow created was came to be known as the Nipkow disc, which rotated between the image to be scanned and a selenium element. The electrical conductivity of selenium varies according to the amount of light that hits it, so the difference in light value between areas of the image (what we would call pixels today) could be measured and recorded. There is no evidence that Nipkow ever built a prototype of the entire system, and his patent lapsed after 15 years.

2. Boris Rosing

155Boris Rosing.JPGRussian scientist Boris Rosing filed for a German patent in 1907 on a television system that used a cathode ray tube (CRT) as a receiver. He updated his patent in 1911. His system used a mechanical Nipkow disc as a scanner. Rosing's research in television came to an abrupt halt in 1931 when Joseph Stalin had him arrested and exiled to Archangel, where he died in 1933.


Continue reading for the steps toward television as we know it.

3. A. A. Campbell-Swinton

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Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton was a Scottish electrical engineer who was the first to publicly describe transmission of scanned images by using a cathode ray tube on both the sending and receiving end. Others had proposed television by cathode ray tube, but only on the receiving end. Campbell-Swinton's first published account of such a system was in a 1908 letter to the publication Nature. He later lectured on the question of television, stating that the future of the medium was surely to be all-electronic, as opposed to mechanical methods.

4. Charles Francis Jenkins

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Charles Francis Jenkins was the earliest American television pioneer. He described his research on television beginning in 1894 in the magazine Electrical Engineer. He publicly demonstrated the transmission of moving images (silhouettes) using a mechanical television system in 1923. In 1925, he demonstrated long distance transmission by sending moving pictures from Anacosta, Virginia to Washington, D.C. By 1928, he was broadcasting a regular schedule of moving pictures from his radio station W3XK in Washington, although the images were primitive. Jenkins built and sold "Radiovision" receivers for his potential audience.

5. John Logie Baird

200bairdface.jpgScottish inventor John Logie Baird developed a mechanical system of television transmission using rotating discs which he tested in 1925 and demonstrated in 1926. This was the first live moving grayscale pictures transmitted. Baird also broadcast the first image of a live human face in 1925, which belonged to William Edward Taynton who worked in the same building and was willing to participate in the experiment. Baird also presided over the first color television transmission, the first transatlantic transmission, and the first stereoscopic broadcast, all in 1928. Baird's system initially had 30 lines of resolution, but with further tinkering went to 240 lines by 1939. By then, electronic television had superseded Baird's system.

6. Kenjiro Takayanagi

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Japanese high school teacher Kenjiro Takayanagi built a television system using Nipkow's scanning disc as a transmitter and a cathode ray tube as a receiver in 1926. Essentially, he invented the electronic TV set. Takayanagi took his expertise to NHK, the Japanese broadcasting corporation and later to JVC, where he became vice-president. (image credit: Flickr user Sphl)

7. Vladimir Zworykin

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Russian electrical engineer Vladimir Zworykin was a student of Boris Rosing. After the Russian revolution, he emigrated to the US, where he worked at Westinghouse. He patented the system of an electronic transmitter coupled with an electronic cathode ray tube receiver in 1923. However, he didn't demonstrate a working prototype until 1929. When he did, RCA hired him on the spot. Zworykin jumped at the chance, since Westinghouse was never interested in his wild ideas.

8. Philo T. Farnsworth

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Philo T. Farnsworth was a Utah prodigy who worked out the problems of transmitting television pictures when he was a teenager. In 1927, at the age of 21, he arranged for a demonstration of an electronic transmitter (which he called the Image Dissector) and an electronic receiver (CRT) for a group of potential investors. The image sent was only a line in the middle of a square, but when it moved, you could see it on the receiver. Farnsworth applied for a patent in 1930, and found that Vladimir Zworykin had also filed for a patent on the all-electronic system in 1923. A legal battle followed. In the end, Farnsworth convinced the patent officials that not only had Zworykin failed to build his system before 1931, but also that Farnsworth had conceived the idea many years earlier (as witnessed by one of his high school teachers). Farnsworth got the patent for the all-electronic system when the case was finally decided in 1935.

The TV we know today is the product of many inventors. In addition to the eight listed here, image broadcasting owes a lot to Rene Bartholemy, Karl Ferdinand Braun, Herbert Ives, Kálmán Tihanyi and others who furthered the science and technology of television with their innovations. Now you know who to blame for soap operas, laugh tracks, and late-night infomercials. On the flip side, without these television pioneers, we would never have seen a man walk on the moon, the Vietnam War would have lasted years longer, and most of us would never have a chance to see how the rest of the world lives.

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

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