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Making Ice Nice Since 1949: A Brief History of the Zamboni

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The technical name for the funny looking machine that refurbishes the ice at hockey and figure skating rinks is an ice resurfacer, but you probably know it better as a Zamboni. Here are a few points you may not have known about the leading brand in the industry for more than 60 years.

Who invented the Zamboni?

Frank Zamboni, the son of Italian immigrants, invented the first ice resurfacing machine in Paramount, California, in 1949. Zamboni initially wanted to name his company the Paramount Engineering Company, but the name was taken, so he used his family name instead.


To fully appreciate Zamboni's genius, it's worth delving a little bit into his past. After working together at an auto repair shop in Southern California, Frank and his younger brother opened an electric service business that specialized in building and installing large refrigeration units for the dairy industry. The Zambonis expanded their business to meet the demands of the produce industry by building a plant that produced block ice, which was used to keep perishable goods from spoiling while in transport. When the demand for block ice began to wane as refrigeration technology improved, the brothers used their ice-making expertise to capitalize on the growing popularity of figure skating by opening the Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount in 1939.

What was the inspiration for the Zamboni?

Maintaining the quality of an ice surface that could accommodate up to 800 skaters was a labor-intensive and time-consuming task. Iceland Skating Rink workers walking behind a scraper being pulled by a tractor scooped up the shavings, sprayed the ice with water, and squeegeed the surface. According to the Zamboni website, the process took more than an hour. There had to be a better solution, Frank Zamboni thought. He was right.

What did the first models look like?

Most of Zamboni's early prototypes were built of war surplus parts. Zamboni applied for a patent for his Model A resurfacer, which was built and tested in Paramount and included a hydraulic chamber from a Douglas bomber, in 1949. The look of the machine hasn't changed all that much in 61 years.

How does a Zamboni work?

As the machine moves over the ice, its sharp blade shaves a thin layer from the surface. A rotating horizontal auger collects the shavings and funnels them to a rotating vertical auger, which moves them into a large bin called the snow collection tank. Water is released from the back of the machine to clean the ice before it is collected by a squeegee, vacuumed, filtered, and returned to the wash-water tank. Clean water from a separate tank is sprayed out of holes in the back of the machine and smoothed over with a towel.

How did the Zamboni become popular?

A big breakthrough for Zamboni occurred in 1950, when figure skater Sonja Henie ordered two machines for her traveling tour. Arthur Wirtz, the owner of Chicago Stadium and the man responsible for presenting Henie's tour, reportedly told Frank Zamboni that he was concerned with the novelty of the machine. "People will stay in the stands and watch it and not go down to the concession stands," Wirtz said. Charlie Brown would agree. The Peanuts character said a Zamboni clearing the ice is one of the three things in life that people like to stare at, along with a crackling fire and a flowing stream. (Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis and included many references to Zambonis in his cartoons.)

The Boston Bruins became the first NHL team to use a Zamboni in 1954 and other teams eventually followed suit. In 1960, Zamboni supplied six ice-resurfacing machines to the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.

What other machines did Zamboni invent?

In the early 1970s, stadiums throughout the country began installing AstroTurf in place of natural grass. While the synthetic surface required minimal upkeep, rain would collect on the surface, rendering it unplayable. The manufacturers of AstroTurf approached Zamboni in hopes that he could design a machine that would alleviate this problem. The result was the Astro Zamboni machine, which removed rain water from AstroTurf and prevented unnecessary rain delays. Zamboni developed two more machines for use on AstroTurf, one that helped roll and unroll the surface and another that removed paint from it.

How many machines has Zamboni built?

Zamboni has manufactured about 10,000 machines. Today, the company's two factories produce about 200 Zambonis a year.

Who else manufactures ice-resurfacing machines?

While most of Zamboni's competitors have been flushed away over the years, the Resurfice Corporation in Ontario, which has been operated by the Schlupp family for more than 40 years, continues to produce its Olympia model. The company boasts a handful of NHL clients and provided electric ice resurfacers for the 2010 Winter Olympics, providing national attention that the company would probably like to forget. The electric machines failed to properly clean the ice during the men's 500-meter speedskating event, causing a lengthy delay. According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, the Schlupps are used to hearing their machines referred to as Zambonis, while the Zamboni family is wary that the familiarity of the name will lead to the company losing its trademark protection.

Are there any famous Zamboni drivers?

Al Sobotka, who has driven the Zamboni and cleaned up octopuses at Detroit Red Wings games for more than 30 years, is one of the more famous Zamboni drivers. In 1999, the Zamboni company sponsored a Zamboni Driver of the Year contest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the machine. Jimmy Macneil, who drove the Zamboni at the arena in Wayne Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario, won the contest and the right to drive the Zamboni at the All-Star Game in Toronto. "It's a thrill right up there with getting married and having children," said Macneil, who drove Zambonis through the streets of Canada in the four months leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics to raise money for the Canadian Hockey Association's grass-roots programs.

Also, the GEICO Caveman:

Have there been any Zamboni accidents?

Yes, including the one that killed Carla's husband, Eddie LeBec, on the sitcom Cheers. In 2008, a Calgary man almost lost his leg after it got trapped in a Zamboni as he was stepping down from the machine. It took firefighters half an hour to free the man's leg before he was transported to the hospital in serious but stable condition. According to the Zamboni website, Frank Zamboni crashed into the highway median while driving a Model C machine he was delivering to Berkeley Iceland. And while they managed to avoid a crash, two employees of a Boise ice skating rink were fired after driving a Zamboni through a Burger King drive-through in 2006.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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