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Your Camping Equipment's Fascinating History

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Now that spring has sprung, you might be planning a weekend camping trip with your family or friends. As you stuff your car with all the necessary equipment, take a moment to reflect on the fascinating history of some of those must-have camping accessories.

1. ?Duffel Bag

While rucksacks have been around for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, they were usually made from animal skins or wool, which only did so much to protect contents from the harsh elements. But Spanish and Portuguese sailors of the early 17th century hit on a better solution. They found that bags made from the leftover scraps of fabric used to repair a ship's sails did a fine job against rain and sea water. This coarse, sturdy, waterproof material was imported from its one supplier in the town of Duffel, Belgium.

2. Flashlight

When D cell batteries became commercially available in 1896, it opened the door for all kinds of battery-powered inventions. One was the “electrical hand torch,” introduced in 1898 by the American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company, which would later change its name to The American Ever-Ready Company. The first lights were paper and fiber tubes, with a carbon filament bulb covered by a lens on one end, two D batteries inside, and a metal ring on the side. Pressing down on the ring caused it to hit two metal poles—one positive and one negative—which completed the electrical connection, lighting up the bulb.

Early batteries were quite weak, though, so the light only came on in brief flashes before going out again, which is how they got their nickname, “flashlights.” Heavy use of the light also meant that it had to be “rested” so that the batteries could recharge. Still, it was much better than carrying a candle that could go out, a lantern that had to be refilled with oil, and, more importantly, there was no chance of starting a fire.

As battery and filament technologies improved, the flashlights could stay on for minutes at a time, but the name had already become synonymous, so it stuck (in America and Canada anyway; the rest of the world still calls them “torches”).

While the lights were fairly popular, sales really skyrocketed in 1898 when Ever-Ready donated their new and improved metal flashlights to the New York City Police Department. When officers reported how useful the lights were in their duties, these testimonies were included in the company's product catalog, adding weight to the quality and usefulness of the brand. ??

3. Sleeping Bag

The modern sleeping bag was influenced by a number of different sources. In the 1850s, French officials who patrolled the mountains had a knapsack bag made of sheepskin and lined with wool that could be rolled up and buckled in place, then carried with shoulder straps. Then, in 1861, Alpine explorer Francis Fox Tuckett tested a prototype sleeping bag made from a blanket with a waterproof rubber bottom. Both of these designs were little more than an open-ended man-sized bag, so getting in and out for a late-night bathroom break was a bit of a hassle, but it got the job done.

A more convenient design came from Welsh inventor and father of the mail order business model, Pryce Pryce-Jones. In 1876, he introduced the Euklisia Rug. The Rug consisted of a wool blanket with an off-center pocket at the top for a sewn-in, inflatable, rubber pillow. Once inside, you folded the blanket over and fastened it together to keep you snug as a bug. P.J., as he called himself, had produced 60,000 Rugs exclusively for the Russian Army; many were used in the 1877 Siege of Plevna during the Russo-Turkish War. However, when the city fell, the Russians canceled the rest of their order, leaving P.J. with 17,000 Rugs left undelivered. He quickly added the Euklisia Rug to his catalog and sold it as an inexpensive bedding solution for charities working with the poor. The rug caught on, and it was soon being used by the British Army and Australians camping in the Outback, too.

No known examples of the Euklisia Rug exist today, but in 2010, the BBC commissioned a replica made from the original patent as part of a special TV series called A History of the World. They donated the recreation to a museum in Powys County in Wales, where Pryce-Jones lived.

4. Air Mattress

The first air mattress was invented in 1889 by the Pneumatic Mattress & Cushion Company in Reading, Massachusetts. Surprisingly, the design of the mattress has remained virtually unchanged over the last 120 years, closely resembling the standard air mattress used for lounging in the swimming pool today.

The rubber mattresses were originally produced as an alternative to hair-filled mattresses on Atlantic steamships because they could be deflated and stowed easily, and could even be used as a life raft if needed.  The mattresses' easy storage was also a big selling point for landlubbers who, in the early part of the 20th century, moved out of the country and into one-room city apartments where space was limited.

To sell their inflatable mattress, the company offered a 30-day trial period, a tactic still used today by many mattress retailers. If you didn't love your pneumatic mattress, you could return it for a full refund of $22 for the adult version, or $11 for the baby crib-sized version. ?

5. Leatherman Tool

Ask any outdoorsman, farmer, EMT, computer technician, or soldier to give up his Leatherman Multi-tool and you'll likely be told, “You can pry it from my cold, dead hands.” Fans of the handy gadget are dedicated to the multi-tool thanks to its compact size, versatility, and quality construction. But just what is a “leatherman” anyway? Is it a nickname given to rough and tumble mountain men in the 19th Century? Maybe they were soldiers that were part of a special brigade that fought in the Civil War? Nope. It's a guy. His name's Tim.

When Tim Leatherman, a mechanical engineer, and his wife were traveling through Europe in 1975, their rented Fiat kept breaking down. Tim was pretty handy, but he found that his old Scout knife, which had a couple of blades, a can opener, and a flat head screwdriver, simply wasn't enough tool to keep the old car running. So, using cardboard cutouts, and then later making a metal prototype in his garage workshop, he developed what he called a “multi-tool” that he thought would change the world. Unfortunately, the world wasn't too impressed.

Tim tried to sell the idea to knife companies, but they said it was more like a tool. Tool companies said it wasn't a tool, but a “gadget,” so they weren't interested, either. Tim eventually decided to make and sell the Leatherman on his own, but still couldn't find anyone to carry it in their stores. Finally, in 1983, he convinced a mail-order catalog to sell his “Sportsmen” multi-tool. Tim had the resources to produce as many as 4,000 Leatherman multi-tools. He received 30,000 orders in his first year.

6. Sterno

If starting a campfire isn't your strong suit, it never hurts to have some Sterno, the flammable gel in a can, within reach. This “canned heat” has been around since 1893 and takes its unusual name from the company's founder, S. Sternau. The product really hit its stride during World War I, when the Sternau Company ran a marketing campaign suggesting soldiers going to Europe could use Sterno to heat water and rations, sterilize surgical instruments, and provide light and warmth in the cold, dark trenches. Soon, just about every Doughboy had a few cans in his duffel bag.

Sidebar: Too Much of a Bad Thing

Sterno gel is a concoction of various chemicals, including ethanol and methanol. The methanol is added to “denature” the product, essentially making it poisonous in an effort to discourage anyone from drinking it for the ethanol to get a buzz. Methanol poisoning can lead to a wide range of health problems, including stomach cramps, hallucinations, convulsions, blindness, and could even kill you, so you would think that would be a pretty good deterrent. Still, some desperate folks have been known to create “squeeze” by either wrapping the gel in cheesecloth and squeezing out the liquid, or by straining the gel length-wise through an entire loaf of bread. (The bread doesn't make it any safer to drink at all, but it does apparently make it taste a little better.)

In 1963, Max Feinberg sold Sterno at his cigar store near the skid row section of Philadelphia. His was the only store in town that sold the stuff, so he had quite a few homeless customers that would buy a few cheap cans to keep warm, but also to make squeeze. At the time, Sterno had two versions of the canned heat—a standard version that had 3.75% methanol, and an industrial version that contained 54% methanol. Unfortunately, Feinberg accidentally received a few cases of the industrial-strength version, but was none the wiser when he sold nearly 400 cans during the week of Christmas. This meant his customers’ squeeze came out more potent than usual and 31 people died of methanol poisoning.

The court had evidence that Feinberg often asked his customers how their last batch of squeeze turned out, indicating he knew people were drinking the Sterno when he sold it to them. That was enough cause for him to be brought up on 31 counts of involuntary manslaughter. However, he was only tried and convicted on 17 counts; he received a suspended sentence on all but five. Ultimately, he served about six years in prison for his part in the deaths.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]