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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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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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