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Party Like It's 1876! 12 Items From the Centennial Exposition

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The 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, which was more commonly known as the Centennial Exposition, was held in Philadelphia in honor of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. From May through October, almost 10 million visitors, including repeat guests, wandered through the 249 temporary buildings and stayed in the temporary hotels constructed in and around Fairmount Park. These visitors were treated to more than 30,000 exhibits from all over the world, with each participating country determined to showcase its inventive clout. Here's a sampling of some of the more famous and bizarre items on display.

1. Corliss Steam Engine

The Corliss steam engine was assembled on a platform in the center of Machinery Hall, the main attraction inside the most popular building at the fair. After presiding over the opening ceremonies, President Ulysses S. Grant and his guest, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro, each pulled a lever to set the famed engine in motion. The impressive machine, which symbolized the United States' rise to industrial prominence, was nearly 50 feet tall and powered most of the machines within the 13-acre building.

2. The Telephone

While the Corliss steam engine initially attracted the largest crowds, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone would eventually become the talk of the fair. Bell, who hadn't planned to attend the event, gave the first public demonstration of his instrument on a sweltering afternoon in June, in front of an audience that included Emperor Pedro and Lord Kelvin. Bell picked up the transmitter and spoke into it. Standing 20 feet away, Empeor Pedro put the receiver up to his ear and famously remarked, "My God, it talks!" Lord Kelvin took the receiver and reportedly said, "It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America."

3. Portable Bathtub

Ethelbert Watts, a Pennsylvania native who was cashier of the Centennial Board of Finance, introduced a portable bathtub made of rubberized cloth at the Exposition. The inspiration for Watts' invention was what he perceived as a lack of bathing services for travelers.

4. Typographic Machine

The typewriter on display at the Centennial Exposition wasn't nearly as popular with the judges or the public as Bell's telephone. It resembled a sewing machine and featured a QWERTY keyboard that produced only capital letters. The Remington No. 2, which was released in 1878, featured both upper- and lower-case letters on the same type bar. By 1893, Remington was producing typewriters in multiple languages.

5. Mechanical Calculator

George B. Grant, who holds four patents for calculators, displayed his barrel model difference machine in Philadelphia. The machine was 5 feet by 8 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds, and included 15,000 components. When hand-cranked, Grant's invention could calculate 10 to 12 terms per minute. When connected to a power source, its efficiency doubled. The machine received high praise from the judges, but by the 1880s, it was obsolete. Cheaper, more efficient, and—most importantly—smaller models hit the market.

6. Hires Root Beer

Charles Elmer Hires served free glasses of his recently perfected root beer from a booth at the exhibition, a refreshing treat for thirsty fairgoers. The average daily attendance at the fair was never greater than 34,000 between May and August, which was partly the result of a devastating heat wave. The average daily attendance in September and October spiked to roughly 80,000 and 100,000, respectively. Visitors to Hires' booth could purchase 25-cent packages of the dried roots, herbs, and bark that went into his root beer, along with three-ounce bottles of condensed extract. The following year, a local newspaper publisher convinced Hires to advertise his root beer and the rest was history.

7. Bananas

For many visitors, the Philadelphia Exposition was their first opportunity to try an exotic yellow fruit. Bananas, which were still a novelty in the United States and were often served with a knife and fork, were wrapped in tinfoil and sold for 10 cents apiece.

8. Popcorn

Citing records provided by the aforementioned Centennial Board of Finance, which managed to do its job even while some of its members were busy inventing portable bathtubs, the Philadelphia Record reported that a vendor paid $3,000 for the right to sell popcorn at Fairmount Park. "This in its way is as remarkable as the concession to lager at $50,000, and to catalogues at $100,000," the reporter opined. "Considering the cheapness of the delicacy, think how many tons of pop-corn must be sold at the fair in order to justify the merchants in paying $3,000 for the privilege of selling it!" Buttered popcorn was indeed a big hit at the Centennial Exposition. Charles Cretors would display some of his patented popcorn machinery at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

9. Kudzu

Kudzu was one of several ornamental plants exhibited in the Japanese pavilion. While the plant was first used in the United States after the Centennial Exposition as a decorative shade provider, it was later adopted for a much different purpose. When the Soil Erosion Service, which later became the Soil Conservation Service, was created as part of the New Deal, it began recommending kudzu as a means of erosion control. "What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant," Hugh H. Bennett, head of the SCS, remarked.

10. Lady Liberty's Arm and Torch


Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who began constructing the Statue of Liberty in 1876, sent the completed arm and torch to Philadelphia for display beginning in August. The torch display was part of a fundraising effort to help pay for the base of the to-be-completed statue. Visitors paid 50 cents to climb a ladder to the balcony around the torch. After the Centennial Exposition closed, the torch was displayed in New York City's Madison Square Garden for several years.

11. Monorail

Long before Disney World opened, General LeRoy Stone's monorail carried passengers around the fairgrounds at the Centennial Exposition. Stone's monorail ran more than 150 yards between Horticultural Hall and Agricultural Hall. The double-decker vehicle featured two main wheels and the rear wheel was powered by a rotary steam engine.

12. Iron Lifeboat

In its centennial look back at the Centennial Exposition, Popular Mechanics recalled the popularity of a lateen-rigged, noncapsizable iron lifeboat on display. "It boasted luxuries no one had ever seen before in a lifeboat—"˜covered accommodations for females and children, arrangements for water-saving, mail box, and required no lowering device.'"

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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