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6 Car Companies You Might Not Realize Are 100+ Years Old

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Karl Benz founded the company that would one day be called Mercedes-Benz in 1883, and they sold their first automobile in 1886. Big whoop. Henry Ford made cars ubiquitous not long after founding his factory in 1903. Everybody knows that. That Messers Rolls and Royce first rolled out their long-hooded luxury cars in 1906 is less surprising than the Queen loving corgis.

Here are six car companies that you might never have guessed are among the oldest auto manufacturers in the world. Each has passed the 100-year mark, making them worthy of a birthday shout-out on the morning news.

1. Opel

© GM Company

Like many of the oldest car manufacturers, when Opel opened its doors in Germany in 1863, it wasn’t building cars. No one was at that point. Opel made sewing machines, then bicycles, and then, in 1899, started building automobiles. While the family that owned the business learned how to build these infernal contraptions, they partnered with companies like Darracq of France, which built carriages. By 1902, Opel was confident enough to debut its very own automobile at the Hamburg Motor Show, but not so confident that it ditched the sewing machine business. That bold step wouldn’t come until the whole plant burned down; when Opel rebuilt, they decided to only produce cars from then on. By 1913, they were the largest auto manufacturer in Germany, and by 1930, they made more cars than anyone in Europe (with a little help from their new friends at GM).

2. Fiat

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In an industry filled with dreamers, firebrands, and fierce family pride, Fiat is a bit of an exception. It was founded in 1899 not by a man with a vision, not by a lowly Italian engineer with more guts than business smarts who was determined to make it against the odds, but rather by a board of directors wielding the sexy power of a company charter. And sure, in Latin “fiat” means “Let it be done,” which sounds strident, but don’t dye your toga purple for the party yet. The name is an acronym taken from the charter: Società Anonima Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino. S.A. FIAT. Now they own Chrysler, so don’t discount the allure of a charter.

3. Tatra

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When most of us think of Tatras—if we think of them at all—we think of them as cars driven by the East German bad guys in spy movies of the '60s, or as conveyances for Soviet apparatchiks in vintage newsreels. By that time, this company was already over a hundred years old. It was founded in 1850 in the Czech Republic as a carriage builder (under the tongue twister of a name Nesselsdorfer-Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft). Building carriages made the transition to building horseless carriages pretty smooth, and in 1897—only one year after the pioneering Benz car—the Präsident (above) was available to purchase. The company changed its name to Tatra, after the nearby mountains, in 1919, and though it is struggling, Tatra is still making trucks today.

4. Peugeot

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Peugeot goes way, way, way back as a French family business. The automobile company counts its start as 1810, when the grain mill was converted to a steel foundry. But it would take eight decades for technology to catch up and the Peugeots to start building cars. Their first was the type 3 of 1891, which puttered along behind the Paris-Brest-Paris bike race to prove its mettle over 2045 km. This made perfect sense, given that Peugeot made bicycles in the same room where the cars were being built (cars got their own plant in 1897).

5. Renault

Renault

While many of the earliest auto manufacturers were established by nerdy engineers, the Renault brothers of France were a new breed and in it for speed. They fired up their first cars in 1898 and started racing immediately. (The oldest automotive joke, by the way, is that the first-ever car race happened when the second car was built.) The Renaults were young and saw racing as a way to promote their cars, little one-seaters called voiturettes. This race-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday strategy is still used today, despite the fact that Marcel Renault crashed during a race in 1903 and died as a result.

6. Aston Martin

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A big happy hundredth to Aston Martin, which was founded in 1913 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin in the UK. Why wasn’t it called Bamford and Martin, you ask? Well, it was, for a year. They changed the name in 1914 after Martin raced the Aston Hill Climb, a peculiar type of race whose point is to make it to the top of a steep hill fastest. Brits apparently love it. Astons kind of flew along under the radar until they hit the pop culture jackpot in 1965. James Bond first drove a DB5 painted Silver Birch and sporting all the deadliest gadgets from Q’s lab in Goldfinger. That car sold for $4.4 million in 2010.

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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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