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The Quick 10: How 10 Classic Toys Were Invented

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It's Friday, so I thought we'd go with a particularly fun topic today — and what's more fun than toys? These 10 classics are sure to inspire a little nostalgia.logs

1. Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright's son. The original instructions included a how to construct a replica of Abraham Lincoln's cabin, obviously, but also directions on how to build Uncle Tom's cabin.

2. Tinkertoys were invented after a stonemason saw kids being thoroughly entertained by building things with pencils and spools of thread.

3. Hula Hoops have been around forever in various formats, but the "official" Wham-O toy was invented in 1958. The inventors promoted it by going around to various playgrounds and parks giving children samples and showing them how to use it. Something tells me two random men showing up in a park handing out toys wouldn't go over that well today"¦

monkeys4. Sea Monkeys are real (and that's what they look like). I always thought they were a scam because I never once saw living Sea Monkeys swimming around in their little plastic home. They were "invented" in 1957 by Harold von Braunhut, the guy who invented X-Ray specs, but they are really just brine shrimp which are ideal for packaging because they enter a natural state of suspended animation in certain (shippable) environments. When kids release the "monkeys" into the prepared water, they "hatch." The reason they're so active is because one of the packets you dump into the aquarium contains a type of salt that increases the sexual activity of the little critters. Yep. Think about that the next time your kid is fascinated by Sea Monkeys.

5. Play-Doh was first sold as a wallpaper cleaner. How's that for weird? It was rolled it on the walls to remove coal dust.

6. Troll dolls were created in 1949 by a Danish fisherman who needed a cheap Christmas gift for his daughter because he couldn't afford to buy anything. He used sheep's wool for the hair. Thomas Dam's dolls caught on, which is why the original dolls were called Dam Dolls. 

slinky7. Slinky was invented by Naval engineer Richard James. He knocked a coil off of a shelf when he was working to develop springs that could keep ship instruments stable in choppy waters. The spring did what a Slinky does"¦ it stepped down to a stack of books, then to the table, and then to the floor, where it righted itself into a cylinder. James knew it would be a great toy and tests by neighborhood kids proved him right.
8. LEGOs were invented by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a master carpenter who lived in Denmark. The word comes from the Danish words LEg and GOdt, which together means "play well." They later discovered that in Latin, Lego means "I put together."

9. Raggedy Ann and Andy were created by writer and illustrator Johnny Gruelle. Ann was created as a doll in 1915 for Gruelle's daughter "“ he reportedly named the doll after two books poems from a James Whitcomb Riley book "“ "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphan Annie." Ann inspired Gruelle to write stories about her adventures, and in 1918, Raggedy Ann Stories was released. Her brother, Andy, showed up in 1920.

10. Sock Monkeys. The sock monkeys that we have come to know and love today "“ the ones made with Red-Heel socks "“ are thought to have come about in 1932. The distinctive red heel (the monkey's mouth) was given to the socks so customers would know they were getting authentic Rockford socks. When the Nelson Knitting Company discovered that their socks were being used across the country in this arts-and-crafts movement, they won the design patent for the sock monkey pattern and started including it in the packaging of their socks.

Have a good Q10 suggestion? Send me a Tweet!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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