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12 Fascinating Moments in Winter Clothing History

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Nowadays, people have access to all sorts of high-tech fabrics to stay warm and dry in inclement weather. But people faced the elements without the aid of nylon for thousands of years. From cloaks banned by Augustus Caesar to dog-toting hand muffs, here are some of the more interesting moments in the history of winter wear.

1. The Inuits created the parka predecessor.

Faced with a harsh Arctic climate, the Inuit were experts at creating insulating clothing. They made the original waterproof parkas using the intestines of whales or seals. According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, two parkas would often be worn at once to improve insulation and air circulation in subzero temperatures. Much like today’s parkas, Inuit parkas included drawstring hoods.

2. Augustus Caesar hated cloaks.

Ancient Romans wore a woolen cloak called a lacerna, made in a variety of colors, that was fastened at the shoulder using a pin or buckle. First used by soldiers, the coat gained enough popularity in the city to catch Augustus Caesar’s attention. Fed up with seeing too many citizens wearing the dark cloak in assembly, he issued an edict banning its use in the forum or circus.

3. Large fur muffs symbolized status.

Just as some of today’s starlets enjoy toting their dogs in status bags, French women during the reign of Louis XIV would stash small dogs in large hand muffs. According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, the hand covering gained popularity in the 16th century and originally went by many names, including “snuffkin” in English. Muffs made of fur imported from North America were popular objects used to display wealth in Europe. Some muffs were even adorned with accessories such as a bejeweled animal skull attached with a chain.

4. The Mayans made latex boots.

In CentralAmerica, the Mayans took advantage of rubber trees to create a sort of customized boot. According to Scientific American, they made cuts in the rubber trees to extract latex. Then they coated their feet in the latex several times, until the coating formed a thick covering that functioned like a waterproof boot.

5. Vulcanized rubber boots helped advance rubber technology.


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In the early 1800s, people began using rubber shoe coverings to protect their shoes from the water. But rubber at the time had a tendency to crack, and people began to lose interest. Tire manufacturer Charles Goodyear was determined to find a way to improve rubber, although his many failed experiments left him in debt. Undeterred, he continued experimenting. One day in 1839, spilled rubber, sulfur and white lead onto a hot stove. According to Scientific American, the substances, when mixed together, did not melt. He tweaked the combination of sulfur and rubber and named the process vulcanization after the Roman god of fire. The new formula was used to create waterproof boots.

6. The waterproof raincoat was invented to create a use for an industrial by-product.

Charles Macintosh invented a wearable waterproof fabric while trying to find a use for naptha, a by-product of coal-tar distillation. When he used naptha as a solvent for rubber, he was able to use the rubber solution to glue two layers of wool together. He patented his invention in 1823. Unfortunately, the fabric stiffened in cold weather and became sticky in hot weather. This problem persisted until vulcanized rubber provided a temperature tolerant solution.

7. Ushankas keep Russian heads and ears warm.

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The famous Russian fur hat’s name literally means "hat with the ears." While fur hats have been in use since the middle ages, University of Chicago professor of Russian Valentina Pichugin told the Chicago Tribune that ear flaps originated in the 19th century and became popular in Russia in the 1920s. The quality of fur used in the hat revealed social status in the Soviet Era. According to Pichugin, some people even tried to pass off cat fur as rabbit fur. In a 1994 article, the Times of London reported that some Moscow residents bought ushankas lined with steel cages to provide protection from gangsters' bullets.

8. Pashmina shawls are valued as investments.

True pashmina shawls are made from the fur of pashmina mountain goats in Nepal, India, and Tibet. The fur comes from the neck and underbelly of the goat. According to The Christian Science Monitor, a single handmade shawl takes 98 workers an entire day to complete on wooden looms. In India and Nepal, pashminas are often part of dowries and are seen as an investment like gold.

9. The down coat was created after Eddie Bauer's brush with death.

In 1936, Eddie Bauer almost died of hypothermia when his wool coat froze on a fishing trip in Washington. This experience inspired him to create a lightweight down coat. His coat, patented in 1940, utilized goose down for its warmth and breathability. To keep the down in place, he used a diamond quilting pattern.

10. Up until the 18th century, sleeved coats were strictly working class wear.

According to the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, sleeved outercoats only surpassed capes in popularity for men in the 18th and 19th centuries. The coat began to take its modern shape when the English tailored it to be worn over men’s suit coats. Jackets only gained popularity with the upper classes after they began using the coats for hunting in the late 18th century.

11. Polar fleece was invented in the 1970s.

Wool was a great source of insulation, but its tendency to absorb water and become heavy could be problematic. According to Gizmodo, Malden Mills Industries, which got its start making woolen swimsuits in 1906, began experimenting with plastic yarns. In the late 1970s the yarn was woven into a thin fabric and then brushed to separate the fibers into the thin loops that give the fabric its cozy texture without adding weight.

12. There's a poncho that doubles as a tent.

The U.S. military is equipped with a poncho that's the Swiss Army knife of outerwear. When the head hole is sealed with Velcro, the garment can be used as a sleeping bag. It can also be rigged up as a tent or worn as an anorak. The basic premise of the multi-function garment has been around since the Civil War, but today’s ponchos are lighter weight and provide better protection from the elements.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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