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A Brief History of Shaving

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Most of us pick up a razor at least every couple of days, and although shaving's a little tedious, it's not too much of a hassle. It hasn't always been quite so easy, though. Let's take a look at the history of shaving.

It Could Get a Little Rough Pre-Gillette

In the days before razors, you could either sport a hirsute look or get creative. Records drawn on cave walls show prehistoric people shaving with clamshells, flint knives, and even shark teeth. It's not clear when these crude implements gave way to what we now think of as razors. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, circular solid gold or copper razors can be found as far back as the 4th millennium BC in some Egyptian tombs. Still other cultures sharpened volcanic obsidian glass and used those.

Another story posits that the Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus introduced the razor to his people in the 6th century BC, but shaving didn't really catch on with Romans for another hundred years or so.

In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great encouraged his men to shave so enemies couldn't grab their beards during melees. Alexander's subjects were often shaved using a novacila, a block of iron with one edge sharpened, which sounds like a great way to shred your face.

Julius Caesar supposedly preferred to have his beard plucked out with tweezers, although other Roman men used razors or rubbed the beards from their faces using pumice stones. (Ouch!)

It Didn't Get Safe Until 1828

king-gilletteDesigns for safety razors date back to at least 1762, but they didn't really catch on until 1828, when they debuted in Sheffield, England. In 1847 William Henson invented the hoe-shaped razor that most of us have in our medicine cabinets, and in 1895 a traveling salesman named King Camp Gillette (pictured) combined this shape with the idea of shaving with a disposable double-edged blade. The resulting safety razor eventually made Gillette a fortune and solved the hassle of having to remove the razor's blade to sharpen it every few shaves.


The idea was great, but there was a problem: the blades weren't easy to make. It took another six years for Gillette to find someone who could actually make the disposable blades. MIT professor William Nickerson joined up with Gillette to figure out a way to stamp the blades out of sheets of high-carbon steel, and by 1903 they had their first batch of razors ready to take on America's beards. By 1906 Gillette's design was moving 300,000 units a year. Interestingly, Gillette sold the razors at a loss, but he more than made up for it by selling the blades at a huge profit.

Although Gillette's invention came from his notion that he should invent something people bought, threw away, and then repurchased, he wasn't your typical capitalist. He became a strong proponent of utopian socialism later in his life and planned a community in Arizona in which engineers would rationally orchestrate all activity. Gillette even offered Teddy Roosevelt $1 million to serve as president of this planned utopia in 1910, but Roosevelt declined.

Things Got Electric in the Twenties

People have been patenting and trying to market electric razors since 1900, but at first they met with little success. (One failed model from 1910 ran on clockwork.) In 1928 a retired Army colonel named Jacob Schick patented an electric razor he had designed, and the world finally had a winner. Schick razors took store shelves by storm in 1931, and they quickly sold millions of units.

The real winners in this transition from wet shaving with soap and a brush to electric razors were badgers. Their hair had been highly prized for wet shaving brushes because it retained water so well, so more than a few badgers were spared a shearing as America started plugging in their electric Schicks.

Like King Camp Gillette, Jacob Schick was a bit of an odd duck. Part of the reason he went into the shaving business was that he really, really believed in the benefits of shaving. In fact, Schick supposedly thought that if a man shaved often enough, he could lengthen his life to 120 years.

The Real Arms Race Started in the 1960s

After years of losing market share to their electric competition, Gillette finally hit upon a winning innovation in 1960 when it introduced stainless steel blades. These newer blades were tougher to hone, but they lasted much longer and didn't rust. Consumers loved them. Bic introduced the first totally disposable razors in the sixties as well, which made shaving even more convenient.

Gillette struck another blow in 1971 when it introduced the two-blade razor. Other companies followed suit, and now it's just a matter of time before we're all shaving with a 17-bladed behemoth. [Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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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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May 23, 2017
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