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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Who Was the First Stewardess?

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Editor's Note: Last fall, Kara Kovalchik wrote a story titled '8 Not-So-Famous Firsts,' which covered such topics as the first auto insurance policy and the first wet t-shirt contest. This year, in our newest semi-regular feature, she'll be teaching us about all sorts of underappreciated firsts. This week's topic: aviation. Enjoy!

The term seems hopelessly outdated today, but until the early 1980s, the majority of airline cabin attendants were female and it was commonplace to refer to them as "stewardesses." In the late 1920s, a registered nurse named Ellen Church was so captivated with air travel that she took flying lessons. She approached the president of Boeing Air Transport (BAT) for a pilot position and was turned down. He did, however, like her alternate suggestion—having a registered nurse aboard each commercial flight to assuage the passengers' fear of flying. Air travel was still a new idea at the time, and fledgling airlines were in need of some sort of safety assurance in order to encourage the general public to choose an airplane over a train for their travel needs.

On May 15, 1930, Church became the first stewardess when she worked the BAT flight from Oakland (California) to Chicago. She wore a specially designed uniform that included her nursing pin, and she served drinks and meals as part of her duties. BAT (which eventually became United Airlines) hired seven more stewardesses shortly afterward, and three years later each major airline had at least one stewardess aboard (who was not only a registered nurse, but who also was single, younger than 25, and weighed less than 115 pounds.)

In-Flight Movie

The first movie shown on a scheduled basis on a commercial flight was By Love Possessed. Unlike the already-available-on-DVD movies shown on today's flights, the 1961 potboiler starring Lana Turner and Jason Robards was still fresh in theaters when TWA started screening it in July of that year on flights between New York City and Los Angeles.

The first recorded hijacking of a commercial airplane occurred in Peru on February 21, 1931. A group of five Peruvian rebels commandeered a Pan American Airways Fokker F7 mail plane for the purpose of dropping propaganda leaflets from the sky.

Airport Codes
In the earliest days of aviation there weren't any official "airports"—any field with enough space for take-off would do. In the early 1920s, though, certain large cities had enough demand for air travel that small airports were built, and since temperature, precipitation and wind speed/direction were critical factors in air travel, the National Weather Service began using these airports as data points for reporting the weather. The NWS assigned two-letter codes (LA for Los Angeles, PH for Phoenix, etc.) to each airport for easy reference.

code-laDuring the 1930s the popularity of air travel exploded, and the International Air Transport Association decided to standardize the industry by assigning each airport a three-letter code. The oldest airports, which had previously been known by a two-letter designation, had an X added to their abbreviation. Incidentally, that sand dune in Kitty Hawk from whence the Wright Brothers made their historic flight has its own IATA designation: FFA, for First Flight Airport.

Airport Metal Detector
Airport security was virtually non-existent until a rash of hijackings occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note that in the 1970 disaster film blockbuster Airport, not only was Helen Hayes able to freely travel around the world as a stowaway, but Van Heflin also easily carried a briefcase full of dynamite onto an international flight. In December 1972, the FAA finally decided that skyjacking was a big enough concern to issue an ultimatum: all U.S. airports had one month to install the necessary equipment and procedures to ensure that each and every passenger and his or her carry-on baggage would be properly screened.

The first metal detectors used at most airports were large, clumsy devices called magnetometers. These machines were originally designed for the logging industry (if a piece of metal is present in a log, it can severely damage the saw, so the magnetometer was devised to prevent mill shutdowns.) Unlike the door-frame design of today's metal detectors, the original magnetometers were tunnels about five feet long. Passengers walked up one ramp to enter the device, and down another to exit.

In-Flight Meals
Various airlines served cold sandwiches and hot coffee aboard flights (sometimes distributed by the co-pilot) as a way to attract passengers in the 1920s. In 1936, United Airlines established the first "in-flight kitchen," which had chefs preparing hot meals behind the scenes for stewardesses to serve to passengers en route.




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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]