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8 Not-So-Famous Firsts

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Ever wondered who received the first Social Security Card? Who was involved in the first wet T-shirt contest? Today's your lucky day.

1. The First Hamburger Chain

McDonald's, Burger King and that girl with the braids are better known, but they were all latecomers to the game. Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram partnered up to employ Henry Ford's assembly line model in a restaurant setting. They opened their first White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, a time when Americans were skeptical about the wholesomeness of ground beef. Anderson put the complete "making of" story in full view of the customer; they watched as a cook formed the ground beef into a patty and placed it on the grill. The stark white and shiny chrome theme in the building's décor was also a subliminal hint as to the purity of the food. Sales at that first restaurant were so overwhelming that they soon opened more White Castles (each with the same interior and exterior architecture), first in Kansas and then in Nebraska and Minnesota.

2. The First Social Security Card

John David Sweeney, Jr., of Westchester County, New York, was the person who was issued Social Security Number 055-09-0001 in November 1936. When the Social Security Board first started their plan to issue numbers, they worked in conjunction with the Postal Service. SS-5 forms were sent out to employers across the country for their employees to fill out. The completed forms were either mailed or returned to the local post office in person, and then a Social Security Number would be assigned and a card typed up. The first 1,000 cards were mailed out simultaneously, so there is no way to accurately determine who actually physically received the first Social Security Card. The records for those 1,000 cards were sent to the main processing center in Baltimore, where they began the process of becoming a permanent file in which the number holder's earnings could be recorded. The head of the Division of Accounting Operations pulled the top form off of the pile (which was John Sweeney's) and declared it to be the official first Social Security Record. Sweeney died at the age of 61 and never collected any Social Security benefits, but his widow did until she passed away in 1982.

3. Automobile Insurance

old-carGilbert J. Loomis, a mechanic in Westfield, Massachusetts, built his own one-cylinder steam-powered car in 1896. He had an eye on starting his own automotive manufacturing company, but in order to get the ball rolling, he needed to drive his prototype over unmarked macadam roads to meet potential investors in various states. The potential for damage to his auto, oblivious pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages during such extended journeys was huge, so he approached several insurance companies to purchase some sort of coverage for his vehicle. One company president expressed the feeling of many in the industry when he stated, "I'm not underwriting a gasoline can on wheels!" On October 20, 1897, Travelers Insurance took a chance on Loomis and sold him an automobile policy for $7.50 (about $190 in today's dollars) which provided $1,000 in liability coverage.

4. Class Name 101

The first recorded use of an introductory class being designated as "101" was in a University of Buffalo course catalog dated 1929. However, it wasn't until the early 1930s—when students started regarding a university degree as a means to a better job and schools added more specialized classes to their curriculum—that universities in the U.S. started using digits to identify their courses. Students were also traveling further afield after graduation in search of work, so it became important for a potential employer to be able to compare candidates: Was a passing grade in Cost Accounting 203 at Kent State the same as one in Business Accounting 4 at the University of Michigan?

Eventually, colleges started using a more uniform three-digit designation, in which the first digit indicated the academic level (1=Freshman, 2=Sophomore, etc.). The second digit usually represented a department (English, Science, etc.) and the third the level of the class within the department. These were not hard and fast rules, and still vary from school to school. However, as the three-digit system became more commonplace, it seemed that "101" always represented a basic beginning course, no matter what the discipline. By the late 1960s, the phrase was starting to enter the vernacular at large, outside of the collegiate realm.

5. Real Person in a Feminine Hygiene Ad

kotex-ad
Even during the scandalous Roaring 20s, when women were bobbing their hair and baring their arms, products for "that time of the month" were advertised only very discreetly in women's magazines. And until 1928, those ads featured line drawings or pastel paintings of females, never real women. But that taboo ended when photographer Edward Steichen sold a photo he'd shot of model and Vogue cover girl Lee Miller to the Kotex Company. Miller's modeling career in the U.S. was essentially kaput thanks to the scandalous placement of her photograph, and she fled to Paris where she studied photography and eventually became a renowned photographer in her own right.

6. Telephone Entertainment

Which came first, 1-800-PARTYON or 976-BABE? Actually, when telephone entertainment started out, it was geared toward lonely people seeking spiritual fulfillment rather than frisky young singles. On Thanksgiving Eve 1955, Rev. R.R. Schwambach, the pastor of Bethel Tabernacle Church in Evansville, Indiana, rented a grey, typewriter-sized machine from Indiana Bell. He recorded a 43-second non-denominational prayer and hooked the gadget up to the church's telephone. An article in the November 23, 1955, edition of the Evansville Courier printed the phone number for "Dial-a-Prayer" and explained that folks feeling the need of comfort and inspiration could call at any hour, day or night. Rev. Schwambach thought he'd leave the machine up for the duration of the holiday weekend, but the service proved to be so popular (the phone company reported a backlog of some 5,000 calls and ordered the church to install additional lines) that he continued to record a new message every day. Similar services started popping up first at other churches in Indiana, then across the country.

7. Mainstream Use of "Gay" to Mean Homosexual

movie-002It's not quite clear when "gay" began to mean more than just happy. As early as the 18th century, the word was used to describe a person or place of looser-than-the-standard morals. "Gay Paree" and "gay divorcee" were common phrases of the time, which described the uninhibited fun had in the City of Lights and by recently unentangled folks. By the 1800s, a "gay house" had become a synonym for a brothel. In the early 1920s, both Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward had used the word "gay" to imply a homosexual in their prose, but the references were pretty much lost on anyone outside of the literary intelligentsia of that time. Mainstream America was formally introduced to the term in 1938, courtesy of the film Bringing up Baby. In one scene, Cary Grant is virtually being held hostage by Katharine Hepburn, who has sent all of his clothes to the cleaners. She provides him with one of her frilly dressing gown to wear, and when he later answers a knock at the door in that garb, he explains to the startled visitor, "I just went gay all of a sudden!"

8. Wet T-Shirt Contest

The first wet T-shirt contest wasn't held in some tropical sunny clime; it took place in January at a ski resort in Idaho. In 1969, a sales rep for a company called K2 hired a filmmaker to shoot some footage of professional skiers "hotdogging" on the slopes in Sun Valley. The 12-minute film was used as a promotional tool to sell K2's new line of skis, and the distributors loved it. They clamored for a new film the next year, and the next. In January 1971, production on the third film was wrapping up when a K2 rep informed the filmmaker that the following week was "airline week" at Sun Valley, and gave him 200 K2 T-shirts to give away to the stewardesses (as they were still called at the time) who would be attending. Officials got together and decided to award a prize to whomever looked the "best" in a T-shirt.

After a few rounds of drinks, they decided to add a degree of "difficulty" to the contest—the ladies would have to dive into the resort's heated pool clad in the shirt, and extra points would be awarded if she did so sans brassiere. Not surprisingly, the event was a roaring success. K2 staged a similar event later that year at the Red Onion in Aspen, and that time Playboy had photographers on the sidelines. Many of the participants were later featured in a full-color spread.
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Have you ever wondered about the origin of some mundane or ordinary (or even unusual or disturbing) item or concept? My equally inquiring mind is at your service!

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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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