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9 Fascinating Historic Methods of Contraception

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This might not be the time for the birds and the bees talk, but sometimes, when a man and a woman love each other, they have sex—but they don’t always do it to make a baby. In fact, sometimes, they are very much not in the market for a baby. So before the veritable cornucopia of contraceptive options available to copulating couples today, how did people make love without making dependents?

1. Crocodile dung

The Ancient Egyptians got a lot of things right, but the notion of sticking a ball of crocodile poop and honey up there is, frankly, horrifying. However, it’s quite possible that the poop pessary, as suggested in papyri dating from 1850 BCE, was an effective means of preventing pregnancy—and not entirely because it inhibited relations all together. Crocodile dung has alkaline qualities which could have made it an effective spermicide, in addition to the notion that inserting a solid ball of poop into the vagina could act as a physical barrier.

2. The honey, dates, and acacia tampon

The famed Ebers Papyrus, dating from about 1550 BCE, instructs women in making what could sound like the basis of a dessert or a cocktail—muddled honey, dates, and acacia juice extract, from the tannin-rich acacia tree—until it’s slathered on a bundle of wool and introduced to the reproductive system. The honey and the dates probably didn’t do much, but the acacia, which modern researchers have found can be compounded to become the spermicidal lactic acid anhydride, probably did. Handily, the products of this itchy, sticky recipe, as well as one for a donkey milk-soaked tampon, were buried with dead women so that they wouldn’t become pregnant in the afterlife if they didn’t wish to.

3. Other items to hide in the lady pouch

Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones who realized that putting something up there could be an effective form of birth control. In first century India, women inserted pessaries made of oil-soaked rock salt, or a mixture of honey, ghee (clarified butter), and palasha tree seeds, or elephant dung. Dioscorides, another first century Greek doctor, recommended peppermint or sickelwort mixed with honey (always honey). In the 17th and 18th centuries, women could use half a squeezed lemon as a stinging cervical cap; legendary lothario Casanova takes credit for “inventing” that method, but there’s significant evidence that a lot of people in many different cultures were using it.

Vaginal suppositories were used well into the 20th century—cocoa butter pessaries were sold in London until 1960, while some English women in the 1970s used vitamin-C tablets, which sound like they would burn and, unsurprisingly, did.

4. The early diaphragms

Pessaries made out of foodstuffs and poop worked on a few different levels, physically as a barrier to keep the sperm from reaching its intended target and chemically, in some cases, as a spermicide. But other objects pressed into use as diaphragms, cervical caps, and other inserted barriers included a weird, six-sided wooden block the Victorians used that required a lot of fiddling to work and was denounced as an “instrument of torture”; natural sponges; a teapot top, if the traveling History of Contraception Museum is to be believed; rubber; algae and seaweed; wool; specially-made gold or silver caps; oiled paper; small rocks; and melted and molded beeswax.

5. Flushing it out

Roman and Greek women were big into douches and the notion of flushing the visiting sperm out of the lady canal with sea water, vinegar, lemon juice, and other acidic, stinging liquids. Ancient Indian women also tried steaming it out, using a special kettle. But it was American teenagers in the latter and obviously more enlightened half of the 20th century who hit upon the best anti-baby lady irrigator: Coca-Cola. Though Coke, whether Diet, New, Cherry or otherwise, does not make an effective spermicide, but that did not stop women from trying it; that it came with its own “shake and shoot” applicator (thanks, Snopes) made it all the better. I wish I could say that this was an urban legend, that women didn’t really believe this, but a friend of a friend’s cousin tried it and the bottle got stuck. True story. 

6. The morning—or moment—after

Soranus, which is a very funny name, was a first century Greek physician who suggested that ladies who didn’t wish to conceive should, immediately after the act, hold their breath, sneeze, and then drink cold water. Should that not work, you could also try kicking your heels into your butt until the “seed” comes loose and falls out. And if that doesn’t work, jump up and down.

7. Drink this, eat that

Even before Margaret Sanger pioneered The Pill, women used oral contraceptives to retain control over their fertility—though not always to good effect. Ancient Chinese women drank solutions of mercury in an effort to keep babies at bay; it probably did have a sterilizing effect, but also probably caused brain damage and kidney failure. Drinking water that a blacksmith had cooled his iron in was also a thing from ancient Greek times through medieval Europe, but was probably just about as healthful as drinking mercury. Herbal infusions were also pretty popular, such as pennyroyal tea, which is quite toxic in all but the weakest doses, or drinks made from pine or vitex, known to Ancient Greek women as “the chaste tree.”

There are, of course, other more benign oral methods of contraception. Ancient Greek women ate pomegranate seeds (or, as was probably more common, inserted them vaginally), inspired by the Greek myth of Persephone, goddess of spring, and her unwilling vacation to the Underworld. In India and Sri Lanka, women who didn’t want to conceive were advised to eat a papaya a day; according to modern research, the enzyme papain interacts with the pregnancy hormone progesterone to inhibit pregnancy.

One of the best sources on medieval contraception comes from Peter of Spain—a 13th century son of a physician who became, quite ironically, Pope John XXI. Peter’s suggestions included a lengthy list of herbal potions and lotions, including sage (to be taken orally, preferably in a nice cream sauce on ravioli) and hemlock (to be applied in a plaster to the testicles).

8. Weasels’ testicles, mules’ earwax, and black cats

The medieval concept of human conception was, well, flawed. Aside from the mildly contraceptive belief that the best time for conception was during menstruation, because menstrual blood was believed to be the lady’s contribution to the baby batter, the medievals had some other exciting ways to stave off babies—like tying a weasel’s testicles around your neck. One could also wear an amulet made of mules’ earwax, donkey dung, or a mule's uterus, or a bone taken from the right side of an all-black cat, strapped to your thigh; Dioscorides, the Greek physician, recommended wearing a necklace made of an asparagus stalk.

Weasel ball necklaces were not the only creative use of animal testicles as contraception in history—women in North America were said to drink a potion of dried beavers’ testicles and strong alcohol to try to prevent pregnancy. Early physicians also suggested that men who didn’t wish to impregnate their partners drink a potion of pulverized animal testicles, sometimes mules'.

9. The condom

Even if they didn’t quite understand where babies came from and how, pre-modern people were at least clued in that something happened during the act of intercourse and it probably involved the gentleman’s contribution. A 12,000 to 15,000 year old cave painting in France depicts what some historians claim is the first illustration of a man wearing a condom during sexual intercourse; King Minos of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, who lived around 3000 BCE, supposedly used goat bladders as condoms; and an illustration from Ancient Egypt, about 3000 years old, seems to show a man wearing what looks like a sheath around his penis. The oldest condoms ever found date back to 1640 and were animal-tissue sheaths, like sausage casings, found at Dudley Castle in England.

So why are they called “condoms”? Some historians say that a mysterious Dr. Condom was an 18th century physician in pay of a British king who gave the randy royal a reusable condom made of sheep intestine. It’s probably a bit more likely, given the ancient provenance of the condom, that it comes from the Latin condon, meaning “receptacle.” The famed lover Casanova, who supposedly seduced his own daughter, used linen condoms; Japanese men in the 19th century used kabutogata, hard sheaths that were made of leather or tortoiseshell and were definitely not ribbed for her pleasure. Interestingly, if you have a latex allergy, you can still buy condoms made of sheep intestine, although they ought to be discarded after one use and they’re not as effective as latex in preventing disease.

After animal tissue and before latex, however, there was rubber—and Goodyear, as in the tire manufacturer, got in on the ground floor of the condom market: In 1861, the New York Times ran an advert for “Dr. Power’s French Preventatives,” a Goodyear-made condom. Latex made its entrance on the scene in the 1930s. 

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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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