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The History of the Hamburger

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Close your eyes and picture a hamburger. Whether the version in your imagination was bursting with lettuce, tomatoes and onions and oozing ketchup or not, it’s a sure bet that the picture included a bun. Without a bun it’s not a hamburger, just a hamburger patty, or what used to be known as a “Hamburger steak” or “Hamburg steak." Oh, and happy National Hamburger Day!

The Proto-hamburger, from Sausage to “Steak”

Exactly how a dish named for a German city evolved into one of America’s favorite foods is a riddle wrapped in a mystery on a sesame seed bun. The earliest reference to the ancestor of the hamburger appears in an English cookbook from 1763. Hannah Glasse in Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy tells how to make a Hamburg sausage. She mixes minced beef with suet, spices, wine, and rum and stuffs it into a gut, which is then smoked and dried. Except for the last steps converting it into a sausage, the minced meat and fat with spices could be a Hamburg steak. Strange as it seems, according to Mark H. Zanger’s article on Hamburg steaks in the online reference Daily Life Through History, in Germany, Hamburg never had a special association with chopped meat.

The first glimpse of Hamburg steak in Google Books is less than savory. According to the public documents of Massachusetts for 1835, “There were 689 samples of meat products examined during the year, of which 19 samples of Hamburg steak and 71 samples of sausages were adulterated.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines Hamburg steak as “a dish composed of flat balls of meat like fillets, made of chopped lean beef, mixed with beaten eggs, chopped onions and seasoning, and fried.” The oldest quotation the editors found is from the Boston Journal for 1884. Across the country in San Francisco, a menu from the Clipper Restaurant dated 1871 to 1884 lists Hamburg beefsteak for 10 cents, the same price as stewed mutton, tripe or salmon. A tenderloin steak was 20 cents. 

Getting Warmer: The Hamburger Sandwich 

Who turned a Hamburger steak into “the hamburger” by placing it on a bun? Zigzagging across the country again, we find many contenders. According to the Library of Congress, Louis’ Lunch Wagon in New Haven, Conn., served the first hamburgers in 1895. But their hamburger sandwiches were served between slices of bread. Close, but not the real deal.

There are more tantalizing hints. The Tombstone [Ariz.] Prospector for September 5, 1896 reported that the residents of Bisbee rejoiced at the arrival of a lunch wagon offering pies, hot “tomales,” hamburger sandwiches and other delicacies, “fully guaranteed to be free from all bad effects in the way of nightmares, indigestion, etc.” In 1902, a member of the Delta Sigma Delta fraternity described sampling the offerings at the Indiana State Fair: “I ate a hamburger sandwich, carefully eliminating the gravel and other foreign substances as I came to them,” but didn’t reveal whether the sandwich was on bread or a bun.  

According to an oft-repeated story, Fletcher Davis, a fry cook from the tiny town of Athens, Texas, popularized the hamburger sandwich at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Josh Ozersky in The Hamburger: A History, however, claims Frank X. Tolbert, the late columnist for the Dallas Morning News, concocted the story as well as the nonexistent New York Tribune article he used to back it up.   

Bun, Bun, Who’s Got the Bun? 

A 1911 restaurant-trade book, The Lunch Room calls for two slices of bread for a hamburger sandwich, but also says, about sandwiches in general, “In some localities the round bun sandwich is very popular.” Who can tell where those localities might be? In all likelihood, many a burger was borne on a bun unseen, to waste its perfume in some forgotten lunchroom. 

But in 1916, another fry cook, Walter Anderson of Wichita, Kan., developed a dense bun with a crisp crust especially to hold up to the juiciest hamburger. Ta-da! The quintessential hamburger was born. By 1920 he owned three hamburger stands and he teamed with an investor to expand the business. They designed buildings in the form of castles and painted them bright white to emphasize their devotion to cleanliness.  Sorry, Mickey D, Wendy, Wimpy and all the anonymous lunch wagon proprietors and family picnickers. At least for now, a founder of White Castle holds the title of inventor of the hamburger.

Now, fire up that grill and enjoy a juicy burger on a toasted bun.

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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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May 23, 2017
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