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MATTHEW HOLLISTER

The History of Paint-by-Numbers

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MATTHEW HOLLISTER

In March 1951, shoppers of all ages descended on Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square. Though the holidays were long over, eager customers packed in for a glimpse of the first in-store demonstration of a new craft project called paint-by-number. They swarmed the demonstrators and bought multiple sets without hesitation. Anyone present could see that the kit had mass appeal. As word of the frenzy reached the annual New York City Toy Fair taking place a few blocks away, orders began pouring in from retailers around the country.

There was just one problem: The customers were fake. Or mostly fake. The creators of the phenomenon would never know for sure. The rush on Macy’s was part of one of the most brilliant publicity stunts in the history of art or business. But the product itself was inspired by a different genius— Leonardo da Vinci.

When Dan Robbins, the 13th employee of Detroit-based Palmer Paint Co., read that da Vinci taught his apprentices the basics of painting by using numbered patterns on a canvas, he suspected the idea might have wider appeal. So he worked to put out a new product that would delight aspiring artists of all ages.

Unfortunately, no one wanted his Craft Master paint-by-number kits. Most retailers feared customers wouldn’t get the concept or wouldn’t want such a remedial art project. Finally, S.S. Kresge (later Kmart) took a chance and placed a big order. But due to a packaging snafu, the paints for two kits got swapped: Colors intended for “The Fishermen” ended up in boxes for “The Bullfighter.” Hobbyists stared at the blue-caped matadors battling green bulls, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Hit with demands for refunds, Kresge canceled all future orders.

Desperate to get its product back on shelves, Palmer Paint knew it had to act fast. Max Klein, the company’s founder, had an idea. Klein and Robbins started by asking the Macy’s toy buyer to let them demonstrate their kits in-store, promising that any unsold merchandise could be returned free of charge. Macy’s had nothing to lose by signing on. Then, Klein hired two reps to grease a few palms. In his 1998 memoir, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?, Robbins recalls, “Max gave each of the reps $250, telling them to hand it out to friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone that would be willing to go to Macy’s and buy one of our Craft Master sets for $2.50.” That was $500—more than enough money to buy all the kits in the store.

Sure enough, the trick worked and “customers” flooded in. But Klein and Robbins forgot one detail: They didn’t keep track of who’d been given cash. In fact, they had no idea how many of the sets had been sold to their own plants and how many went to real customers caught up in the hysteria. Regardless, news of the sellout spread to buyers at the fair, and orders skyrocketed. Fake sales begat real ones, and paint-by-numbers turned into a full-blown fad.

Critics and serious artists scoffed at the idea that you didn’t need talent or training to make something worth hanging on a wall. But the rest of the country? It couldn’t get enough. Before long, paint-by-number landscapes and puppies had invaded the nation’s living rooms. Fan mail from adults and kids poured in; one housewife from Maryland wrote: “My home is disgraceful, and I sit here all day and paint. I’m spending my husband’s money, which I ought to be saving. Please send me a list of any new subjects you have.” By 1954, Palmer Paint boasted $20 million in sales of its Craft Master kits, 1,200 employees, and dozens of competitors. But the company did more than profit from a novelty; it showed that even if you paint yourself into a corner, there’s always a way to market your way out.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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