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11 Eponymous Brands and the People Behind Them

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Vidal Sassoon passed away this week at the age of 84. He was an artist who revolutionized the way women dealt with their hair, created the “bob,” and believed that women should be able to just wash their hair and still end up with a great style, rather than needing to go to a salon constantly. Starting in the 1950s, Sassoon opened a chain of salons and sold his hair products worldwide. In honor of him, here is a look at 11 other men whose famous brands they named after themselves.

1. Adolph “Adi” Dassler – Adidas

© Schnoerrer/dpa/Corbis

Adi and his brother Rudolph owned their own shoe company in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. Their products were so popular, many of the German competitors in the 1928 Olympics wore Dassler Brothers shoes. But during WWII the brothers had a falling out. While both joined the Nazi party, Rudolph was more fanatical and went off to fight, leaving Adi to make shoes for the military. After the war ended, Rudolph left and formed his own company, Puma. Adi then renamed the original company after himself, and Adidas was born.

2. King Camp Gillette – Disposable Razor

King realized early on that people liked things they could use for a short time and then throw away. Since constantly sharpening your razor was a pain, he decided to come up with a disposable one. After five years of work he finally succeeded, and founded the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1901. King came up with the idea to give away the razor for free and charge men for the blades. He also believed in a socialist utopia, where all companies would be combined into one, which would be owned by the public. He offered Teddy Roosevelt a $1 million salary to be head of this theoretical company, but was turned down. He also believed that everyone in the United States should live in one giant city called Metropolis, which would be powered by Niagara Falls.

3. Candido Jacuzzi – Hot tubs

The seven Jacuzzi brothers emigrated from Italy to California in the early 1900s. Once there they started coming up with innovations for the big new craze: the airplane. Their biggest hit was the creation of the first plane with an enclosed cabin, which the US Postal Service bought to deliver mail. According to legend, their mother was worried about her sons’ safety and eventually convinced the brothers to change jobs. They started concentrating on hydraulic pumps for irrigation and hospital use. In the late 1940s, Candido’s young son Kenneth started suffering from arthritis. He received hydrotherapy at a hospital, but his father decided his son needed to have access to it at home as well. He filed a patent for his invention, but it wasn’t until another relative, Roy, joined the business years later that they started selling their Jacuzzi tubs to the public.

4. Charles Rudolph Walgreen – Drug stores

Today Walgreens pharmacies can be found in more than 8,000 locations around the US. But originally, Charles had nothing to do with pharmacies. He was working in a shoe factory in the late 1800s when he lost part of a finger in an accident. The doctor who patched him up managed to convince him to become an apprentice in a drug store. Eventually he became a licensed pharmacist, but enlisted to fight in the Spanish-American war before he could do anything with his new skills. At the war's end, he started opening pharmacies that also had other amenities like over-the-counter goods and soda fountains. Soon Walgreens were popular hangouts, and Charles owned a chain of hundreds of them before his death in 1939.

5. Earl Tupper – Tupperware

Earl wasn’t always in plastics. Originally he was a landscaping man, but the Great Depression put him out of business. He got a job at DuPont and created a lightweight, flexible plastic, which the government then used for gas masks during WWII. In 1948, ten years after he founded the Tupperware Plastics Company, he was contacted by a woman named Brownie Wise. At that time Tupperware was sold in stores, but Wise had started selling it at women’s get-togethers to great success. She and Earl joined forces and soon he pulled his entire line from shops and it was sold exclusively at these “Tupperware Parties.”

6. Frank Zamboni – Ice Resurfacers

Image credit: Zamboni.com

Before household refrigerators were common, the ice making business was booming. But in 1939, twelve years after Frank and his brother started their ice block business, refrigerators were popular enough that they saw little future in the venture. Stuck with many large refrigeration units, they decided to open an ice rink. It was there that Frank, who had no more than a 9th grade education, came up with a way to resurface the ice. Originally it took three men an hour and a half to get it done, but in 1949 he invented the precursor of the ice machine we know today. Now one man could resurface a rink in ten minutes. Like Xerox and Kleenex, Zamboni is a trademarked word that we now use to refer to all ice resurfacing machines. In April 2012, the 10,000th Zamboni ever sold was delivered to the Montreal Canadiens.

7. Dr. Klaus Märtens – Footwear

The Nazis were apparently very good at footwear. Like Adidas, Doc Martens were designed during WWII by Klaus while he was on leave from the German army due to an ankle injury. He experimented with making better boots for himself, and when the war was ending and Germans started looting from their own cities, he managed to get his hands on a bunch of leather. When the war officially ended he pilfered more from disused Luftwaffe air fields. He was surprised to find when he opened his shops that 40% of the people who purchased his comfortable, durable boots were housewives. Once his shoes were popular enough, an English company bought the rights to distribute them in the UK. Since it was only 1959 and feelings towards Germany were still negative, the name was Anglicized to Doc Martens.

8. Orville Redenbacher – Popcorn

The creator of the most popular popcorn in the United States didn’t even start selling it until he was almost 50 years old. Orville spent most of his life breeding corn hybrids, tens of thousands of them, until he found one that would pop 40% larger than normal corn. Since this special corn, called “RedBow,” was more expensive, many distributors were hesitant to buy it. Orville hired a Chicago marketing company for $13,000. Their advice? Call the popcorn Orville Redenbacher’s and put his picture on the label. While Orville was fond of saying his mother came up with that idea for free, it worked and starting in the 1970s he was appearing in dozens of popular television commercials and going on chat shows to convince the public he was a real person.

9. Josiah Wedgwood – Pottery

Josiah may be remembered today in his eponymous pottery, but his life was far more exciting than that association would lead one to think. In his day he was a prominent abolitionist, and his pottery company made a medallion with the design of a black slave on his knees with the motto, “Am I not a man and brother?” He produced large quantities of the medallion and distributed them for free through the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Fashionable women started wearing them as jewelry and men smoked pipes with the image on the side. It became the most widely recognized image of a black person during the 1700s. Sadly, Josiah died before slavery was abolished in England. However, he also has the distinction of being the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

10. William Henry "Boss" Hoover – Vacuums

Boss’s last name is so synonymous with vacuum cleaners that in the UK it is both the go-to noun and verb; there they hoover the house with a hoover. But it wasn’t Boss who came up with the idea. James Murray Spangler invented the first upright vacuum in 1908 because his asthma was exacerbated by the dust the carpet sweeper used at his work stirred up. He was making one every 2-3 weeks when he loaned a model to his cousin Susan Hoover. Her husband, Boss, was looking for a new business venture since he was a leatherworker and the popularity of the car was reducing people’s need for his goods. He seized the opportunity and bought Spangler’s patent from him. But if only a few people had been interested in Boss’s leather goods, absolutely no one was interested in his weird sucking machine. Desperate, he put an ad in a popular magazine allowing what was possibly the first ever “free at home trial.” The gimmick worked and within four years the Hoover Company was an international brand.

11. Linus Yale, Jr. – Locks

Linus was originally a gifted portrait painter. But in 1858, his father died and Linus started working at the lock company his dad had founded. Once there, Linus used his drawing skills to envision ever more complex and secure locks. In order to make sure companies bought from him and not his competitors, Linus learned how to pick their locks and would demonstrate how easily they could be broken into at banks and businesses. He died of a heart attack in 1858 1868 while in the middle of negotiating the use of his locks in a new skyscraper. Yale went on to be the #1 lock manufacturer in the US.
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There are plenty more where these came from. If there's an eponymous brand whose history you'd like to know more about, leave a comment and we'll talk about a sequel.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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