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Seaway China

11 Gas Station Premiums of Yesteryear

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Seaway China

It’s probably difficult to fathom now, but there was a time when the price of gasoline was pretty static for long periods and oil companies battled one another for the consumer dollar by attempting to instill some level of brand loyalty. How many of us today specifically seek out a Chevron station versus any other vendor when our gas tank needles are hovering just above “E”? That wasn’t the case some 40 or so years ago, when gas stations sought repeat business via Any Means Necessary. And among those Means were a variety of premiums or promotional giveaways. See how many of these tchotchkes you remember.

1. Union 76 Balls

Etsy user VintageUrbanAntiques

Union Oil introduced “76” gasoline in 1932; the name was intended to refer both to the Declaration of Independence and the fuel’s octane rating. Thirty years later, the company’s first illuminated rotating orange ball sign debuted at the Seattle World’s Fair. In 1967, the company introduced what is believed to be the first car antenna-topper. The small replica of the Union 76 ball was spray-painted orange by hand and then screen-printed with the “76” logo. Technology improved over the years so that the antenna balls could be mass produced by machine, which was handy because by 1985 the company was giving away just over a million of the toppers per year to loyal customers. 

2. Esso Tiger Tail

Pinterest user David Small

In 1959, a Chicago copywriter named Emery Smith came up with the tagline “Put a tiger in your tank” to promote the Esso Oil Company. Thanks to print and TV ads, the slogan caught on like wildfire, and Esso took full advantage of the cat’s popularity by offering faux fur tiger tails for sale at its retail outlets, which were designed to be attached to a vehicle’s gas cap.

3. Gulf Horseshoes

Time Passages Nostalgia

Gulf Oil was bought out by Chevron in 1984, but prior to that time the big orange Gulf “disc” sign was an iconic part of the American landscape. During its heyday, Gulf offered three fuel choices, at three different price points: Gulftane (sub-grade regular), Good Gulf (regular), and Gulf No-Nox (premium). No-Nox was marketed for the high-performance muscle cars popular from the 1950s to '70s; the high octane content didn’t necessarily add miles to the gallon, but it prevented engine knocks and pings. To promote the extra “kick” your car received from No-Nox, Gulf offered an adhesive set of horseshoes free with a fill-up. Rocking a pair of orange shoes on the bumper of your Camaro told the world that you cared enough for your ride to pay those extra pennies per gallon for premium.

4. Texaco Fire Chief Hat

Texaco introduced its Fire Chief brand of gasoline in 1932, so named because the octane rating met the requirements for fire engines. Over the years the company offered many versions of a fireman’s hat as a premium: Some cheap plastic versions were given away free with a fill-up, while some more elaborate versions (with a battery-operated light and microphone/loudspeaker) were available for a low purchase price.

5. Hess Trucks

PInterest user American Collector

The first Hess gas station opened in 1960 in Oakhurst, New Jersey. Four years later, the company produced a branded toy tanker truck (which could be filled with water and emptied via the delivery hose) in time for the Christmas season at the bargain price of $1.29, batteries included. The toy was such a hit that the company continued the tradition, producing a new model each succeeding year. 

6. Sinclair Dinosaur

Collector's Quest

Sinclair Oil registered the Apatosaurus as its trademark in 1932. At the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, the company hosted a display that featured nine life-sized dinosaurs, highlighting the beginning of the formation of crude oil. Dino, the company’s mascot, was featured on a variety of premiums, including plastic piggy banks so the kids could start saving up for their very first tank of Power X. 

7. Esso Oil Drop Man

Seaway China

The Happy Motoring Oil Drop Man was introduced as an Esso mascot in Denmark during World War II as a pleasant medium to deliver the bad news about ongoing fuel shortages. He debuted in the U.S. in 1958 and appeared on various giveaway items, including key chains and gift packages that featured a road map, a can of handy oil, and one of lighter fluid. Happy was phased out in the 1960s by the more aggressive Esso tiger.

8. Shell Presidential Coins


Long lines were forming at Shell stations in 1969, but not because of any gas shortages. It was the company’s Mr. President Coin Game that caused folks to flock to the pumps. Shell offered a series of 31 coins featuring the different Presidents of the United States (we had a lot less of ‘em back then) along with cards on which there were marked slots for specific coins. When you filled up a card, you won the specified prize. Some coins were instant cash winners—Martin van Buren was worth $500 and James Madison earned a cool $1000, while poor Chester A. Arthur only netted you a buck. Of course, in 1969, a dollar bought three gallons of gas pumped by an attendant who checked your oil and washed your windshield.

9. Gulf Lunar Module


To commemorate the Apollo 11 mission, Gulf gave away a free lunar module model kit in 1969. The cardboard sheet filled with punch-out pieces measured about 12 inches by 18.5 inches and came with a set of fairly complicated instructions for assembly. For those patient enough to fold all those pieces and insert the various tabs into the correct slots, the finished piece was an impressive replica of the lunar lander.

10. Marathon B.C. Comic Glasses

TGL Direct

In the early 1970s, Marathon Oil teamed up with Johnny Hart and gave away a variety of glassware featuring his B.C. comic strip characters. All told, there were 26 different pieces available, including a large glass pitcher. How many dads were sent out to the nearest Marathon station for an emergency fill-up when Junior accidentally broke his favorite Grog glass?

11. ARCO Toy Animals

Etsy user Tinselandtrinkets

In 1971, ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) decided to play on its name to get kids to bug their parents to stop at ARCO every week: they offered a plastic model of Noah’s Ark along with 12 different pairs of toy animals. If you’ve ever found a tiny plastic turtle in the far reaches of your junk drawer and wondered where it came from, it was probably part of this set.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]