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Henry Ford's Attempt to Make Us All Pilots

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Image of a Flivver reproduction via WikiMedia uploader FlugKerl2

"Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come."

Auto magnate Henry Ford earned his fair share of ridicule in 1940 when he made that boisterous proclamation. The flying car may still be coming, but it's certainly taking its sweet time. Seven decades later, there's still no sign of it.

What makes Ford's confidence so mystifying is that the mogul had already spearheaded one attempt to put the common man in the sky, and that project had failed miserably. This is the story of that plane, the Ford Flivver.

In 1924, Ford acquired the Stout Metal Airplane Company and began working on various designs for civilian aircraft. Ford's aircraft division had some successes, like the Ford Tri-Motor transport plane that rolled out in 1926 and earned worldwide acclaim when Admiral Richard Byrd flew it over the South Pole in 1929.

Henry Ford had bigger goals for the division, though. He had already put automobile ownership within the average American's reach, so why not put a plane in every garage, too? The idea sounds ridiculous now – just as it probably did then – but Ford threw himself into the project. With engineer Otto Koppen at the helm, Ford's aircraft division went to work building "the Model T of the air."

Ford knew that successfully marketing a civilian plane would be tricky, so he charged Koppen with designing a small, light craft. (Koppen later said that Ford wanted a plane that would fit in his office.) By the summer of 1926, Koppen had come up with an aircraft that fit the bill. The Ford Flivver was a small single-seat plane that was just over 15 feet long and had a wingspan of just a hair under 23 feet. It ran on a 3-cylinder, 35-horsepower engine made by the Ford company Anzani, and it weighed just 350 pounds when empty.

As unlikely as the task initially sounded, Ford now had a prototype of his everyman's plane. Now he just needed to work out the kinks, show it to the world, and get every American in his own plane. Ford unveiled the Flivver on his 63rd birthday, July 30, 1926, with the company's trusty test pilot, Harry J. Brooks, at the controls.

When Brooks took that initial public flight in the Flivver, it looked like Ford had hit another home run. As Popular Science reported at the time, several novel features of the plane made it seem feasible that your average Joe could get behind the controls. The plane's flaps were arranged to give it maximum upward lift in small spaces, and a rear wheel made it possible to drive from one's home to a makeshift runway.

For the next year and a half, Brooks flew the original Flivver and two other prototypes as the company refined the design. Brooks loved the little plane so much that he actually used it to commute from his home to work. Brooks would tell the press, "Flying a plane like this is no more difficult than flying a large plane, except in this plane the pilot has to think a little faster."

Brooks was one of just two men ever to fly a Flivver. The other was Charles Lindbergh, and Lucky Lindy didn't share Brooks' enthusiasm for the design. Lindbergh later called the Flivver one of the worst planes he'd ever piloted.

Brooks even attempted to fly one of the Flivvers from Michigan all the way down to Miami on a single tank of gas in January 1928. Although rough weather forced a landing in Asheville, NC, the flight still set an American distance record for light planes. Brooks reported that the efficient little plane still had plenty of fuel to finish the trip; when the storm passed, he continued on to Florida.

Brooks' trip to Florida turned out to be the tragic end for the Flivver project. In late February 1928, Brooks was cruising over the ocean just south of Melbourne, FL, when the Flivver's engine locked up, smashing both plane and pilot into the water. The wreckage of the plane eventually washed ashore, but searchers never found Brooks' body.

Although Henry Ford moved quickly to announce that Brooks' death wouldn't alter the company's planes for the Flivver, the project quickly went south. Ford and the young test pilot had become friends, and reports surfaced that the mogul was distraught over Brooks' death. As Ford's guilt grew, he decided to end the Flivver project and get out of the light plane business entirely.

Ford's company later got back into the small aircraft business with projects like 1931's Stout Skycar series, but Ford was never able to put the common man in the air.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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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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May 23, 2017
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