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100-Year-Old Photos of People Delivering Mail

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While the job of a mail carrier might be largely the same as it was 100 years ago, the postal system itself has drastically changed over the past century. Here are some vintage photos, courtesy of The Library of Congress, that show how your mail used to travel in the early 1900s.

Inside the Post Office

Just like today (unless you use online postage or the Automated Postal Center), a package’s journey started at the post office window. While the technology used by the cashier has changed since 1925, it still involves scales, stamps and money.

Once packages and letters were paid for, they were pushed to the back of the post office, where they would be sorted and sent off according to their destinations. Similarly, incoming mail would be sorted for the local carriers to take along their routes. This particular image from 1914 shows the behind-the-scenes action at the Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office in New York.

Just as today, when mailing addresses were found to be illegible, the packages and letters were sent to the dead letter department. While more machines are involved nowadays, back in 1917, the department had to rely on the ability of employees to decipher the addresses.

Mail Trains

Mail wasn’t delivered across the country via small cars or on the backs of horses. At least, not after the railroad connected the coasts to one another. The mail trains were a critical part of the postal system in the early 1900s, although railroads are almost never used in our modern mail system.

In many ways, the inside of a mail train operated much like the back-end of a post office. Sacks of mail would be loaded onto the train and then dumped out for sorting, as seen in this 1938 photograph by Arthur Rothstein.

The mail would be sorted based on destination, then re-bagged and unloaded at its appropriate destination. Here’s a group of gentlemen sorting out the mail in a rail car sometime around 1910.

Modes of Transportation

These days, most mail vehicles are either large trucks carrying loads between post offices or the little trucks used by mail carriers, but in the first half of the last century, there was a lot more variety in the methods of transportation used to ship mail. Automobiles started being used to deliver mail in the early 1900s, but the type of vehicles used varied from location to location. Here’s a line of early U.S. mail trucks taken in an unknown city at an unspecified date.

Some places didn’t switch to using mail vehicles until much later. In fact, it was still common for mail carriers to use horses all the way through the forties — especially in poorer and more rural areas. Here’s a mailman all saddled up for delivery in Puerto Rico taken some time before 1930.

Of course, in snowy areas, other modes of transportation were common. For example, here is a picture of a British Columbia mail team taken some time before 1930.

Once mail trucks started to become more common, though, certain modifications had to be made to accommodate vehicles for delivery in snowy weather. Here is a mail truck adapted to use extra wheels and special treads that was used in snowy Nevada County, California, in 1940, as photographed by Russell Lee.

Air Mail

Air delivery eventually rendered railroad services unnecessary. The Post Office jumped on the airplane bandwagon early, offering air mail service as early as 1918. In fact, here are a bunch of the officials, big wigs and a handful of the pilots that showed up at the first official flight of the air mail service.

And here are some of the first pilots to fly routes on the air mail service back in 1918.

Mail Carriers

Just as today, the most public face of the USPS has always been the mail carriers who visit our homes nearly every day. Before mailboxes were mandatory, they were required to stop at every home and knock on the door, developing close ties with those living on their routes. Here’s one mailman greeting one of his customers in Nebraska, 1938.

As you may have guessed, most mail carriers of the past were men, but during the two World Wars, women filled in at the Post Office just as they did in other businesses. Here is Parmlee Campbell delivering mail to some appreciative customers back in 1917.

Thought the Christmas mail rush was a new phenomenon? Think again. Here are three postal workers strapped with Christmas packages, photographed sometime between 1910 and 1915.

If you like these pictures, head over to The Library of Congress and do a search for “mail.” There are hundreds of pictures featuring mailmen, mail trains and more.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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