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8 Inventions That Never Needed Updating

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istock

If someone presented you with an original 1868 Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer, and told you to write your senior thesis using it, you’d be in for a world of pain. The speed you type with on your close-set keys would be gone, and most of your fingers would be too weak to give the keys the sharp strike they required. Plus, you couldn’t even see the paper, and what was the pedal thing for? The machine you use to type today, even if it’s not a computer, has been so greatly improved over the original invention that they are no longer the same device.

Constant improvement is what we do. So how amazing is it that there exist a handful of objects that, though they be 100 years old or more, are still perfect? Sure, there may have been aesthetic changes over time; maybe you can buy a version made of plastic or enhanced with new manufacturing technology. But if you were given the original product, you’d still be able to use it for the job it was made for. Here are eight inventions done so well the first time that they never needed improving.  

1. Barbed Wire

So, you want to keep your cows out of your corn in 1880s Oklahoma, do you? You’ll need to build a fence. Good luck with that, Cowboy. You live in grasslands, so there aren’t enough trees to do it. And if you try to fence off your 16 miles of ranch land with stone or brick, you will die from either a strain-induced aneurysm or old age first. What to do? The design of a fence (usually still made of wood) with spiky metal points had been popping up in random patent offices around the world since the 1860s, but nothing much came of it. It took four guys—Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood—scuffling and fighting and collaborating until a cheap and easy way to make barbed wire was ready to be sold by the late 1870s. Women have been getting scratched up while trying to find a private place to pee on road trips ever since. 

2. Bubble Wrap

In the late 1950s, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes had a brilliant idea, perfectly suited to the aesthetic of Space Age design: plastic, three-dimensional, tactile wallpaper! For only the heppest of cats to decorate their swinging pads with! Sadly, sealing together two plastic shower curtains with air trapped inside just didn’t have the trendsetting effect they were hoping for. So, like many good innovators, they turned their bust into brilliance by simply changing their goal. Forget wallpaper. In 1964 they patented their "Method for Making Laminated Cushioning Material." Thus bubble wrap became a way to keep your rare Tasha Yar figurines safe during shipping, and also the cheapest form of repetitive therapy to soothe the pain of knowing she’ll never love you. 

3. Rocking Chairs

Rocking chairs are not as old as you may think. They are an American invention, though probably not invented by Ben Franklin, as some people say. They started showing up in the early 18th century, and were popular with people suffering maladies, like bad backs or a toucha the rheumatiz. It wasn’t just the soothing rocking motion that made people feel better. Rocking chairs automatically adjust their center of balance to whoever sits in them, bringing each sitter to a uniquely comfortable position. Not only that, they make surprisingly compelling roadside attractions.

4. The Paper Clip

The advent of easily manipulated wire blessed the world with enough prospective paperclip designs to create a new hieroglyphic language. The designs that flooded the patent office at the end of the 19th century included swirls, wings, triangles, pretzels and every imaginable shape you can think of.  All of them were patented, except the one we’ve been using for 100 years. The standard oblong “Gem” design, of arguable provenance, was the one that took hold, banishing all other designs to the junk drawer of history.

5. The Teapot

Archeologists think teapots were developed during the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1279. They were made of clay and likely evolved as a kind of drinking multi-tool. You could heat, brew, keep warm and drink the tea with the same object. (It’s thought that original teapots were single serving, with the drinker sipping directly from the spout.) Today you can buy a teapot made of paper (don’t) or titanium, but that simple, perfect design of handle, lid, and spout has remained unchanged.

6. Fly Swatter

A stick. A mesh square. A brain-damaged fly who has hit its head on the window so many times it is now slow enough that you can actually hit it. Perfection. The “Fly Killer” was patented in 1900 by Robert Montgomery, but he didn’t do much with it. It was a public health worker, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, who popularized it in 1905. He was trying to encourage people in Kansas to kill flies whenever possible to stop the spread of disease. So he borrowed the Topeka softball team’s “swat the ball!” chant and changed it to “swat the fly!” No poorly-made bug sucker gun or gross fly paper strip has ever rivaled the popularity of the flyswatter. Because people never outgrow the thrill of smacking things with a stick. 

7. The Mouse Trap

I am a woman made of stern stuff. But show me a squashed mouse inside a spring-loaded trap and I will fall to pieces. There was a time that the luxury of freaking out over a mouse didn’t exist. They were vermin: a threat to health, children and food supplies. William C. Hooker’s invention of the spring-loaded mousetrap in 1894 was a blessing upon all of civilized man, superior even to a housecat because no chase or chance was involved. In 1903, John Mast improved on Hooker’s design by making it safer to load and less finger-fracturing. It’s his design we still use today.

8. LEGO

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Yes, you can buy hundred dollar sets to construct impossible machines like this Ferrari F1 1:9, or go freestyle to design horrifying modern art. But the first LEGO bricks you had as a child—those simple, brilliant interlocking blocks—still exist and still work. Toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen began producing his newfangled “Automatic Binding Bricks” in 1949. He used the plastic of the day (expensive, fragile, likely radioactive), and the blocks weren’t that popular with parents who believed “real” toys were made of wood and metal. His son Godtfred eventually worked the kinks out of the manufacturing and material processes, and patented the modern LEGO in 1958. Pieces made from that year can still be used with modern LEGO bricks.  

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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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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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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