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Not-So-Famous Firsts: Food Packaging Edition

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Have you ever wondered why Chinese carry-out is packaged in those wire-handled boxes? Or who came up with the idea of squeezing a dollop of ketchup into a foil packet? Read on for answers to these and other pressing questions...

White Gold Storage

The iconic little folded box with a handle wasn't originally designed with Moo Goo Gai Pan in mind. In the early 1900s, fresh oysters were so plentiful along the New England seashore and such a steady source of income for fishermen that they referred to the shelled slimies as "white gold." The average consumer, however, didn't want the mess or hassle involved with shucking oysters, so the savvy fisherman removed the shells from his catch prior to selling. Originally, customers brought their own containers, but the oyster business eventually boomed so much that Bloomer Brothers, a package manufacturer in Newark, New York, began mass-producing a wax-coated cardboard box that could be used as an oyster pail. The little buckets were soon used by vendors as a carry-all for everything from ice cream to live goldfish. Eventually, folded food containers became Bloomer's number one product. Shortly after World War II, Chinese food suddenly exploded in popularity with mainstream America, and the oyster pail became the carton of choice for Asian carry-out. Bloomer Brothers eventually became the Fold-Pak Corporation and is now the largest supplier of Chinese food containers in the United States.

Got Milk Carton?

Unless you lived on a farm in the pre-refrigeration days of the late 19th century and had access to udders, you purchased your milk from the friendly traveling milkman. Using a horse-drawn cart, he ladled out the moo juice from a large open pail into whatever jug or container the customers brought with them to market. This method was both inconvenient and unsanitary; milk tended to slosh and spill as the customer carried it home, and it was often contaminated with the road grit and horse hair that accumulated in the milkman's pail along the route.


The Warren Glass Works Company of Allegheny County, Maryland, patented the first purpose-made glass milk bottle in March 1880. The Warren bottle had a metal bale around the neck that held a protective cap in place. Three years later, Hervey Thatcher, a New York pharmacist, patented a covered milk pail with two sleeve funnels for the sanitary dispensing of milk from the horse cart to the consumer without the milkman having to lift a ladle.

Glass bottles were a definite step forward, but they also had many drawbacks – they were heavy, breakable, and somewhat expensive to produce. G.W. Maxwell patented the first paper milk carton in 1906; the containers were folded and glued by hand, then coated with paraffin wax. Paper cartons weren't an immediate hit. Because they were assembled when shipped from Maxwell's plant, they took up a lot of valuable storage space at the dairy. Ohio toymaker John Van Wormer pondered the problem and, in 1915, patented a "paper bottle" he called Pure-Pak. It was shipped flat and then later assembled and glued at the dairy prior to being filled.

Cookies and Doughnuts and Cakes, Oh My

Quality baked goods used to be sold in white paperboard boxes tied with string, and only someone with X-ray vision knew what the treats within actually looked like. Then in 1959 Martha Entenmann, wife of the son of the Entenmann's bakery founder, had a brainstorm – people were more apt to buy something if they could actually see it. Working with her sons (who'd joined their mom in the family business after serving in the Korean War), she developed the first cake box with a plastic "window." The new box allowed the company to display its product on standard supermarket shelves, rather than relying on the limited "under glass" space available in independent bakeries. Instead of taking a number and waiting for a busy salesperson, consumers could browse among all the various "see-through" boxes of Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies, powdered doughnuts, and crumb cakes (a favorite of Frank Sinatra) at their leisure before making a choice. Or two.

Portable Ketchup


Ketchup has been America's favorite condiment since the early 1800s, so it stands to reason that most of us think of ketchup packets as having been around "forever." However, the individual foil "sachet" (the industry term for a condiment packet) is much younger than you'd think – it was patented in May 1955 and wasn't widely used until 1968, when Heinz started packaging its ketchup thusly and selling it in bulk to the food service industry. Prior to that time, military personnel were given dehydrated ketchup powder in their field rations, ballpark vendors adorned hot dogs from condiment tubs on their trays before passing them down to the customer, and drive-in restaurants brought full-size bottles to the cars requesting ketchup.

Don't Expect a Laugh When You Crack a Yolk

The egg may be considered by some to be nature's perfect food, but unfortunately nature hadn't considered the logistics involved in shipping eggs in bulk when she devised that fragile shell to contain her precious nutrients. When transporting fresh eggs to market, farmers attempted to cushion their cargo with towels and newspapers, but the bumpy and pitted dirt roads of the 1800s made it nearly impossible for an egg shipment to arrive completely intact.

Joseph Coyle made his living as the founder and editor of the local newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia, but he also had a passion for inventing things. One morning in 1911, he was dining at the Aldermere Hotel when he overheard a heated argument between the hotel owner and the farmer who'd just delivered a shipment of mostly broken eggs. Coyle's mental gears began turning, and he returned to his office with one purpose in mind – to invent a better way to transport eggs. Later that year he patented the "Coyle Egg-Safety Carton," a carrier made of stiffened paper that had a separate "dimple" for each egg. Coyle made his cartons by hand for several years, but demand grew and sales were so strong that by 1919 he was able to build a mechanized factory to produce his egg cartons.

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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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