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A Brief History of Staples

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People have been writing words on paper for a lot longer than they've had convenient ways to firmly bind those pages together. As families wrap up their back-to-school shopping, let's take a look at the evolution of staples.

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Before staplers came along, we had tried just about everything, from sewing and gluing to clamping and skewering. Around 1200 C.E., though, an industrious group of medieval academics became the first to adhere pages using ribbon and wax, and while that practice has long since fallen by the wayside, they were also the first to bind them at the upper-left corner, as we do today.

In the 18th century, French toolmakers constructed a handmade stapler fit for a king "“ King Louis the XV, to be exact. Legend has it that the ornate staples it used were forged from gold, encrusted with precious stones, and bore his Royal Court's insignia.

Less fancy but more practical was the American "paper fastener" patented in 1866 by the Novelty Manufacturing Company, a precursor to the modern stapler. Of course, one key difference was that it held only one "staple" at a time.

Trouble was, the machine would clinch the metal into the paper "“ achieved by pressing down hard on a large plunger "“ but it wouldn't fasten it. That had to be done by hand—a laborious process, to be sure. It wasn't until 1879 that a machine hit the market that both inserted and clinched a single preformed metal staple. It was called McGill's Patent Single Stroke Staple Press, but since it required constant reloading, it didn't exactly spur the stapling revolution.

The Fastening and the Furious

hotchkiss_staplerThat revolution would come in 1895, when the E.H. Hotchkiss Company of Norwalk, Connecticut, began selling their so-called No. 1 Paper Fastener. It used a long strip of wired-together staples, and thanks to its speedy ease-of-use, became so popular that it became simply known as "the Hotchkiss." (To this day, in fact, the word for stapler in Japanese is "hochikisu," though the company has long been out of business.) But the design still wasn't perfect: it required a heavy stroke on the machine's plunger to separate the staples from their strip and drive them into your stack of paper. So much so, in fact, that Hotchkiss-users often kept small mallets at the ready. The golden age of stapling was yet to come.

There were lots of competing stapler technologies on the market from the mid-19th century to as late as the 1940s, for one simple reason: no one had gotten it quite right. When stationery wholesaler Jack Linksy founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Corporation in the 1930s, few could've imagined that his humble company "“ later known as Swingline "“ would change the world of paper-fastening forever. But that's just what he did when he developed the 1937 Swingline Speed Stapler No. 3. According to Linsky's son-in-law Alan Seff, to load a stapling machine before the Swingline came along, "you practically needed a screwdriver and a hammer to put the staples in. He and his engineers devised a patented unit where you just opened the top of the machine, and you'd plunk the staples in."

Amazingly enough, the mechanics of the modern stapler have remained virtually unchanged since Linksy perfected it in 1937.

This article was excerpted from 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything,' which is available in the mental_floss 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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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