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Who Invented the Wheelchair?

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The first wheelchairs didn't just transport the disabled. They were also good for toting dirt, stone and construction supplies around town.

Nobody likes to be tied down. Disabled or not, we all prefer our lives have a little zoom, zoom, zoom, as they say. So it's no wonder that people have been rigging up ways to make furniture portable since the earliest days of classical civilization. In fact, the first recorded instance of wheeled furniture, a child's bed depicted in a frieze on a Greek vase, dates all the way back to the 6th century B.C.E. However, we don't know exactly how this bed was used or for whom. The first records of wheeled seats being used, for transporting both the firm and disabled, date to three centuries later in China. Here, the Chinese used their newly invented wheelbarrow to move people as well as heavy objects. A distinction between the two functions wasn't apparently made for another several hundred years, around 525 C.E., when images of wheeled chairs made specifically to carry people begin popping up in Chinese art.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Lazy

However obvious it might be to us today, the elderly and disabled weren't always the target audience of wheelchair makers. Instead, these potentially life-changing devices often became a plaything, suited to the lifestyles of the rich and lazy. Turns out, at least one medieval European king had quite a bit in common with George Costanza. Although primarily known for getting rejected by Queen Elizabeth I and retorting with the Spanish Armada, Philip II of Spain is also remarkable for using a "rolling chair" around 1595. Essentially an elaborate, portable throne, the chair was made of wood, leather, and iron and included comfy footrests.

Freewheeling Geniuses

Philip's chair was designed especially for him by a Flemish nobleman, but many advances in the evolution of the wheelchair were actually designed and built by the very people who needed them. In 1655, paraplegic 22-year-old Stephen Farfler built himself what turned out to be more than just your average wheeled chair. A watchmaker by trade, Farfler parlayed his knowledge of cranks and cogwheels into the world's first chair capable of moving under its own power. This invention would have been extremely liberating, finally allowing people like Farfler to go about their day without having arranged for a friend to push them from place to place.

Another major advance in mobility, the folding chair, was also designed by a paraplegic. Herbert Everest was a mining engineer who'd been confined to a wheelchair later in life by an on-the-job accident. In 1933, he teamed up with a mechanical engineer named Harold C. Jennings to design a wheelchair that was lightweight and that could be folded up for easy auto transport. The result of their work was a 50-pound model built of tubular steel, a far cry from the massive wood and wicker monstrosities in use since the Civil War. Built on a collapsible X-shaped frame, the Everest & Jennings chair would become the industry standard for years to come. Better yet, in the 1950s, the two men were responsible for developing the first powered wheelchair. Run by a transistor-based electrical motor, the E & J powered chair was the first to make chairs both motorized and relatively lightweight.

This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker 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
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
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]