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A Brief History of Sliced Bread

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ThinkStock

Every new and clever innovation seems to win the praise of being “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Have you ever wondered, how long has it actually been since sliced bread was first sliced? The answer: sliced bread is turning 85 this year!

The concept of sliced bread first came about thanks to Otto Rohwedder, an American inventor from Iowa. Rohwedder constructed the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine for commercial use, but initially had some trouble selling it, or even the idea of it; many bakers expressed concerns about the bread becoming stale too quickly or simply falling apart if sliced.

At first, to combat the worry of the bread quickly going stale, Rohwedder recommended the use of pins to hold the bread together after slicing. Since removing pins to get a slice of bread was inconvenient, Rohwedder soon amended his packaging plan: The loaves of sliced bread were to be wrapped in thick wax paper immediately after being sliced, to keep them fresh. Despite these ideas, bakers were still convinced that customers wouldn’t care whether or not their bread was sliced.

But the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, was willing to give Rohwedder’s invention a chance. They installed the machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The day before this bread was to be put on store shelves, the local newspaper, the Constitution-Tribune, ran both a front page article and a full page ad to inform the public and promote the product:

“After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.”

The full page ad on the back page of that day’s Constitution-Tribune included the same sorts of endorsements, calling it “a fine loaf sold a better way.” Among other things, the ad included instructions on how to deal with the wrapping and the pins in the bread in order to keep the loaf fresh. At the top of the page, the ad proudly announced that sliced bread was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” While there is no definitive proof, it is likely that today’s phrase, “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” was derived from this original slogan for the product.

To the surprise of many—though certainly not Rohwedder—sliced bread became a big success and the phenomenon quickly spread. By 1930, only two years after the debut of sliced bread, Wonder Bread was building its own machines and distributing pre-sliced loaves of bread throughout the United States. This product is what put Wonder Bread’s name on the map.

It seems that the history of sliced bread should end here, but that's not the case. For about two months in 1943, sliced bread disappeared from the shelves completely. In the midst of World War II, the government ordered a ban on sliced bread. The manufacturing of weaponry and other wartime necessities was deemed more important than the manufacturing of bread-slicing machines, and the conservation of materials—such as the thick wax paper used to wrap the loaves—was integral. But the ban did not go over well with bread making companies or with the general public. One woman even wrote a letter to the New York Times admonishing the ban:

“I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!”

After being initiated in January, the ban on sliced bread was lifted in March of 1943. The government said that the savings were not as much as were expected, but the quick turnaround of the ban likely had to do with the severe backlash from producers and consumers.

Apart from that slight hiccup, sliced bread has been in our lives for 85 years. These days, we hardly think about the convenience of it; a sandwich or a slice of toast can easily be at our fingertips. And the next invention that proves to be “the greatest thing since sliced bread” may be just around the corner.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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