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When the Liberty Bell Went on a National Tour

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Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg had specific instructions for both the employees of Independence Hall and the citizens of the city on Independence Day 1915. He wanted the Hall to remain open past its regular closing time. This, he told the city, was so it could accommodate everyone who might want to say goodbye to the Liberty Bell.

The next morning, it would be gone. And Blankenburg wasn’t sure it was ever coming back—at least, not in one piece.

The Liberty Bell, once known as the State House Bell, is one of the most iconic objects in American history. Originally forged in London for delivery to Philadelphia in 1752, it broke upon the first strike and was twice re-casted by metalworkers John Pass and John Stow. Newly strengthened, it was a signal for lawmakers and residents to assemble. But after 90-odd years of persistent ringing, a crack started to manifest. Workers widened the crack and inserted rivets in the hopes it wouldn’t get worse.

According to some accounts, it did—perhaps after a ceremony to commemorate George Washington’s birthday in 1846—and so the Bell was taken out of service, becoming less of a utility and more of a symbol for an assortment of civil rights causes, from abolitionists to the suffragette movement.

While Philadelphians could visit Independence Hall for inspiration, the rest of the country often clamored for a look. Between 1885 and 1904, the Bell went on six road trips, first to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans and finally to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Workers hoisted it on dollies and on train cars, passing through states so Americans could see the 2000-pound symbol for themselves.

Some observers were more recognizable than others. As it passed through Mississippi on its trip to New Orleans, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis approached the Bell and spoke to it directly: "You, sacred organ, gave voice to the proudest declaration that a handful of men ever made ... Glorious old Bell, the son of a Revolutionary soldier bows in reverence before you.” Thomas Edison, who had visited it several times, was also spotted during a later tour, apparently fascinated with the sight of the Bell in the wild.

The 1904 trip appeared to be the last time it would leave Philadelphia city limits. With each successive journey, citizens fretted about the fragility of the Bell and whether it could survive transport. But in 1911, a band of politicians began making noise about another trip—this one clear across the country to San Francisco, where Mayor Jim Rolph petitioned for the Bell to appear in his city’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst endorsed the idea; San Francisco classrooms wrote letters urging Philadelphia to consider it; and in 1912, a petition bearing the signatures of thousands of San Francisco kids desperate to see the bell was sent to the Philadelphia City Council.

Philadelphia Mayor Blankenburg didn’t need any convincing. He agreed to the proposal, but was met with pushback by Boies Penrose, a senator and political rival who insisted the Bell remain undisturbed in the Hall. Talks dragged on for years between the cities, with the chief concerns being the Bell’s welfare in transit and the potential for its status as an American icon to be diminished.

The Bell, according to former Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker, was to be viewed with reverence and not stuck at “fairs associated with fat pigs and fancy furniture.” Other critics charged that for all the talk of fueling patriotism, the real motive was for the fair organizers in San Francisco to have an attraction that could draw huge crowds. Worst of all, prior trips had resulted in the Bell returning to Philadelphia a few pounds lighter: Gawkers would try and covertly chisel pieces of it off as a souvenir.

The two sides were at a standstill when the San Francisco fair opened in February 1915. As a kind of consolation prize, Blankenburg arranged for a ringing of the bell over the transcontinental Bell Telephone lines that had just been hung across the country.

But Rolph wouldn’t stop campaigning. His insistence, coupled with the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915, led to Philadelphia’s anti-touring contingent to soften. If the U.S. was about to be pulled into a world war, then perhaps some portable patriotism was in order.

Still, warnings by metallurgical engineers that the Bell faced the potential of being returned in pieces continued. Speaking to the Oakland Tribune, the reported “doctor” of the relic, Alexander Outerbridge Jr., spoke of the Bell as a patient afflicted with a cryptic “diseases of metals.”

“I myself have no hesitation in saying that the bell has a distemper which should insure its most careful preservation from all shocks such as it would be subjected to on a long journey,” he said.

The cross-country trip would be undertaken by rail, with the Pennsylvania Railroad given the responsibility of creating a ride smooth enough to minimize the risk of any further damage. Massive springs were used to cushion the train car housing the Bell. Dubbed the Liberty Bell Special, the train could also accommodate city councilmen and their families making the trip along with their special cargo.

The Bell hung from a yoke on the car and was surrounded by a brass railing to deter visitors from getting too close; a hook system was tethered to the lip of the Bell to prevent the crack from expanding, a precaution which remains in place today. Officials were firmly set on only allowing the blind to place a hand on it, but the Bell’s handlers were unable or unwilling to corral children, who were frequently hoisted up and allowed to kiss the metal.

Adults took a different tact. They would use whatever trinkets, jewelry, or pocket items they had at their disposal, handing them to guards and asking them to hold them up to the Bell’s surface. As the car traveled on through to San Francisco, the crowds could sometimes grow so deep that their edges couldn’t be seen from the train. An ocean of people had come at every stop to take in an inanimate object that had come to represent either the freedom they had or the freedom they longed to acquire.

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IMLS Digital Collections and Content, Flickr  // CC BY 2.0

Incredibly, it’s believed that one-quarter of the country’s 1915 population was able to view the Bell as it made the 10,000-mile journey to San Francisco. When it arrived in California, the pull was so strong that it even lured a notorious safe robber named John Collins out of hiding. A police officer spotted him in the crowd and had him hauled away.

The train came to a stop on July 17, with the Bell getting a reprieve from travel. It remained on exhibit for four months, attracting far more attention than fair organizers could have predicted. In November, the Liberty Bell Special turned course and returned for home. The retreat was more eventful—and tragic—than the departure, with a woman in Memphis being crushed to death by the force of the swelling crowd. And while the Bell usually loomed over crowds in major cities, some stopovers were more truncated. In Beaumont, Texas, residents were disappointed to find the attraction would only be idling there for 10 minutes at 1 a.m. (although it didn't actually arrive until 6:30 a.m.).

Once it was returned to Independence Hall, the Bell’s handlers—politicians and caretakers alike—rebuffed any further attempts to put it back on wheels. The 1976 Bicentennial was one potential motivation, but further concerns over its condition meant the only trip it took was from Independence Hall to a specially constructed pavilion. It was moved to its current location in 2003. More than 18,000 people visit the bell daily today, where it remains intact—or as intact as it ever was.

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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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