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A Brief History of 7 Baby Basics

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Let’s take a look at the origins of some of the baby basics on every new parent’s baby shower registry.

1. Stroller

The first perambulator, also known as a “pram,” was built in 1733 by famed architect William Kent as a way to entertain the children of the Duke of Devonshire. The pram consisted of a wicker basket set on an ornately decorated wooden frame with four wheels and a harness so it could be pulled by a pony, goat, or dog. The novelty vehicle caught on with the English elite, who commissioned similar models from local craftsmen who put their own spin on the design.

One of the first changes was replacing the harness with two handles, so an adult pulled the child instead of a pony. Later, after too many children fell out of prams, a bar was placed between the handles, allowing parents to push the cart in order to keep an eye on their little one. One design change was made to skirt the law: It was illegal to operate four-wheeled vehicles on footpaths, so after many mothers and nannies received citations for pushing a pram, manufacturers produced two- or three-wheeled prams to keep their patrons out of trouble.

Prams became more popular after World War I thanks to a post-war baby boom, as well as breakthroughs in plastic production. Replacing expensive wood and wicker bassinets with plastic shells, and brass fittings with chromed metal, meant the price of a pram came down considerably. More changes were made to the design too, including deeper baskets, thicker wheels, lower clearance to the ground, and foot brakes.

In the 1940s, strollers, or pushchairs, designed for toddlers were introduced.  Kids in strollers faced forward, rather than the more common parent-facing seats of prams. Early designs were little more than wheeled chairs with a metal hoop around the child.  But a major redesign occurred in 1965 when Owen Maclaren, an English aeronautical engineer, heard his daughter complaining about the struggles of taking a pram on an airplane.  Using his knowledge of aircraft manufacturing, Maclaren designed a stroller from lightweight aluminum that could be folded when not in use.  His “umbrella stroller” became a huge hit and is still popular today.

Another major design shift came in 1984, when Phil Baechler tried jogging with his infant son in tow.  Baechler soon realized that strollers were “awful for running and they come to a complete stop on grass or sand.”  So he began experimenting with aluminum tubing and bicycle wheels, eventually coming up with the three-wheeled Baby Jogger, which he initially sold out of the back of running magazines for $200 a piece.

2. Baby Monitor

Slate

Spurred by paranoia after the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., head of General Electric, asked his engineers to come up with a way for him to listen in on his newborn daughter. The new gadget, called the Radio Nurse, was released in 1937 and consisted of two pieces: the Guardian Ear, which sat by the crib and served as the transmitter, and the Radio Nurse, the receiver, which could stand on a bedside table or hang over the headboard. Although the Guardian Ear isn’t much to look at, the Radio Nurse, with its striking, human-like appearance, is an example of the early work of designer Isamu Noguchi, now best known for his iconic coffee table

Unlike today’s monitors, the signal from the Ear to the Nurse was not broadcast over the air. Instead, the signal was sent through the home’s electrical wiring. However, the system wasn’t perfect, as it was not unusual to pick up other radio signals in the area. In addition, at $19.95 (about $325 today), it was too expensive for most people’s pocketbooks, so the Radio Nurse didn’t last long. The baby monitor would have to wait another 50 years, around the same time that wireless phones were coming into vogue in the 1980s, to became a staple in the nursery.

3. Infant Formula

For centuries, about the only options for women who were unable or chose not to breastfeed were to use whole cow’s milk, or find a wetnurse to handle the duties instead.  But as the Industrial Revolution ramped up, and the science of food became better understood, many companies began producing breastmilk replacements that were said to provide more nutritional value than plain old milk.

One of the most successful was Henri Nestlé.  A German pharmacist living in Switzerland, who would one day help revolutionize the chocolate business, he used wheat flour, milk, and sugar for his Farine Lactée Henri Nestlé (Henri Nestlé’s Milk Flour) released in 1867. Whereas most formula was difficult for babies to digest, Nestlé was able to remove the starch and acid from the flour to make it easier on little tummies, which helped make it a favorite. The formula sold for 50 cents a can (approximately $10.50 today), but mothers could try it first by sending away for a free sample that was good for about 12 meals.

4. Disposable Diapers

As Valerie Hunter Gordon was about to have her third child in 1947, she decided she’d had enough of the time-consuming duty of washing dirty cloth diapers. Using a bit of ingenuity and her trusty Singer sewing machine, Gordon came up with the Paddi, the first disposable diaper system. The Paddi consisted of two parts: a strip of inexpensive, cellulose-based gauze as an absorbing pad, and a nylon outer shell that held the pad in place, made from an old parachute she was able to procure on the Army base where her husband was stationed. To eliminate the need for cumbersome and dangerous safety pins, she added snap closures to make the shell adjust to nearly any size infant.

With her system, instead of washing the entire diaper, the gauze, which started to break down once it was soaked, could be removed and simply flushed down the toilet. The nylon shell could then be wiped off and reused with a new pad in place.

The Paddi was a major hit with her homemaker friends, and she wound up sewing over 400 sets for them at her kitchen table.  Although the diapers proved popular, Gordon couldn’t convince a company to manufacture them because it was thought there was little market for them. Finally, in 1949, Gordon was able to sell the idea to Robinson and Sons, a company that was one of the first to make disposable sanitary napkins. After a slow start, Paddi’s became quite popular, which led other companies to tweak Gordon’s two-part design and release their own disposable diapers. In fact, it wasn’t until 1961, when Pampers were introduced, that the completely disposable diaper became the norm.

Oddly enough, things are coming full circle, as the public has become more aware of the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Today, eco-friendly parents have a variety of choices, including new style cloth diapers, or gDiapers, which feature a flushable pad and a waterproof outer cover, proving that good ideas never truly die.

5. Pacifier

Met Museum

It’s impossible to know just how far back pacifiers go, but some believe the first were “sugar rags” or “sugar tits,” tied-off scraps of linen covering a lump of animal fat or bread mixed with honey or sugar. The child would suck on the fabric and their saliva would slowly dissolve the sugar for a sweet treat.  Sometimes the rags were dipped in brandy or whiskey to alleviate the pain of teething, with the unintended, but not unwelcome, side effect of helping the baby fall asleep.

In the 18th Century, commoners used wood or animal bones to keep kids quiet, but the rich had custom soothers called “corals,” made of polished coral, ivory, or mother of pearl with a gold or silver handle. It was not unusual for the handle to double as a whistle and a rattle, with small bells attached in order to keep the child entertained, but to also ward off evil spirits. Some believe silver corals might be the origin of the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

The pacifier we know today got its start around 1900.  Inspired by the hard rubber teething rings of the 19th Century, a patent filed by Christian Meinecke for a “baby comforter” features a rubber nipple, a circular guard, and a hard plastic handle, giving kids the option of sucking and chewing on either side.  Using a similar design, Sears & Roebuck sold a teething toy in 1902 that featured a hard, faux ivory ring with a soft rubber nipple attached.

6. Baby Bottles

Museum of Childhood

In the past, due to high rates of mortality among women during childbirth, it was not unusual for babies to be fed by artificial means. Until the late 19th Century, baby bottles made from ceramic or metal and shaped like flattened tea pots—tapered to a point for suckling, with a hole in the top to pour in the breastmilk substitute.  Unfortunately, because sanitary conditions were so poor, bottlefed babies often died after getting sick from bacteria built up inside improperly cleaned bottles.

The first glass baby bottle in the U.S. was patented by Charles Windship of Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1841. His design featured a teardrop-shaped bottle with a glass tube coming down from the neck to act as a straw.  Attached to the neck was a rubber hose, leading up to a bone mouth guard and a rubber nipple. Busy moms loved it because the baby could sit up with the bottle between his legs and suck on the nipple to eat; no adult assistance required. However, the rubber hose was nearly impossible to clean, so bacteria built up inside, and the baby inevitably fell ill. The design caused so many infant deaths that it earned the nickname “the killer bottle.” Despite its terrible reputation, and the insistence by doctors not to use that type of bottle, it was popular well into the 1920s.

7. Car Seats

For decades after the automobile’s invention, child seats were less about safety and more about keeping the kid contained in the car. Early child seats were nothing more than burlap sacks with a drawstring that hung over the headrest on the passenger’s seat. Later models, like the one produced by the Bunny Bear Company in 1933, were basically booster seats, propping backseat riders up so parents could keep an eye them. In the 40s, many manufacturers released canvas seats on a metal frame that attached to the car’s front seat so Junior could get a better view out the windshield.  To help complete the illusion, a toy steering wheel was often added to the frame so he could pretend to drive.

The first true safety seat for kids appeared in 1962 when Britain’s Jean Ames created a rear-facing car seat, complete with a Y-shaped strap system to securely hold the baby in an accident. He chose rear-facing because he was operating on the concept of “ride down,” which essentially says it’s safest to decelerate in the same direction the car is moving.  At about the same time, Leonard Rivkin of Denver, Colorado invented the Strolee National Safety Car Seat for Children, which saw the child buckled into a chair surrounded by a metal frame.  It could be used on the front or back bench seat, and even between the new-fangled bucket seats that were becoming popular at the time.

But probably the closest thing to a modern car seat is 1968’s “Tot-Guard” made by the Ford Motor Company. The molded plastic chair was buckled into place by the existing seat belt, and featured a padded console in front of the child to cushion the impact in an accident. General Motors soon came out with their own safety seat, the Loveseat for Toddlers, followed closely by the rear-facing Loveseat for Infants. 

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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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May 23, 2017
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