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10 Roller Coasters That Changed America

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joyrides.com

Although a European invention, roller coasters have been an all-American obsession ever since the first one appeared on these shores 130 years ago. Today, there are more than 650 working coasters in the United States. America, it seems, is the land of the free and the home of the adrenaline junkie.

“People love the thrill of feeling on the edge or even out of control, yet they also need the security of remaining safe,” says Robert Niles, founder and editor of the website Theme Park Insider. “Roller coasters offer a rare chance to enjoy both at the same time.”

But American coasters weren’t always scream machines. They evolved over time, with specific coasters paving the way for those that followed. Ten rides in particular show how coasters in the United States went from humble beginnings to the towering speed demons of today, changing the way thrill-seeking Americans get their kicks.

1. Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway

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Location: Mauch Chunk, Pa.
Year it opened: 1827

The founding father of roller coasters was actually a working railway built to transport anthracite in Pennsylvania’s coal country. A “gravity railway,” it was powered only by pack mules that pulled it up the steep inclines. Downhill momentum took care of the rest. Word of the exhilarating ride spread, and soon the railway was accepting paying passengers who rode just for the thrill of it. It eventually became one of the biggest tourist attractions in America, spending its last five decades in service solely as a source of amusement.

2. Switchback Railway

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Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1884
In 1884, inventor and businessman LaMarcus Adna Thompson constructed his own version of Mauch Chunk’s Switchback Railway at Coney Island. Riders climbed to the top of a wooden tower and boarded a cart affixed to a length of track. With a mighty push, they were sent down a hill and over a series of bumps to the other end of the track. It was the first gravity railway in the country built expressly for the purpose of entertainment, thus becoming America’s first roller coaster.

3. Gravity Pleasure (also known as the Oval Coaster)

Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1885

Ever get goose bumps when ascending a coaster’s first big hill? Ever thrill to the sound of the clanking lift chain as it pulled you higher? If so, you have Phillip Hinkle to thank. A year after the Switchback Railway’s debut, Hinkle got the bright idea to use a powered chain to carry cars to the top of the hill, rather than have riders climb there themselves. This development boosted speed, efficiency and, best of all, profits. Roller coaster designers never looked back.

4. The Flip Flap Railway

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Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1895
The Flip Flap Railway went where no American roller coaster had gone before — upside down. Two-person cars were sent careening down a hill and through a circular loop. The shape of the loop, though, was rough on passengers, causing discomfort, whiplash and other neck injuries. And although the Flip Flap spawned many imitators, owners soon discovered that people preferred to watch others go topsy-turvy rather than suffer through the experience themselves. With unprofitability, the fad soon faded, although not without first proving that coasters could draw riders and spectators in equal measure.

5. Drop the Dip

Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1907

Coney Island History Project

For more than two decades, roller coaster riders were kept in their seats with either thin chains, leather straps or, startlingly, nothing at all. That all changed when Drop the Dip made its debut. Featuring steep drops and sharp turns, it was a far cry from the relatively genteel coasters of the late 1800s. All those hills and angles required a better way of keeping passengers from flying out of the cars. Lo and behold, the lap bar was born. This new safety restraint allowed future roller coasters to go faster and higher.

6. The Cyclone

Revere Society for Cultural and Historical Preservation, Inc.

Location: Revere Beach, Revere, Mass.
Year it opened: 1925

When faced with the words “The Cyclone,” most people rightfully think of the one in Coney Island, which opened in 1927 and still thrills riders today. Yet, for historical purposes, it’s trumped by a Cyclone built two years earlier and more than 200 miles to the north. This other Cyclone is notable for being the first roller coaster to reach 100 feet in height, pointing the way for future skyscraping amusements. It held the title of world’s tallest coaster until 1964. Not bad for a ride eclipsed in history by its Coney Island cousin.

7. Matterhorn Bobsleds

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Location: Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.
Year it opened: 1959

Walt Disney’s namesake park set the standard by which all others are judged. And when Disney got the idea to send riders careening through an ersatz Matterhorn mountain, it prompted another breakthrough — tubular steel tracks. At the time, coaster cars traveled on flat tracks, which limited the degree of turns and sacrificed smoothness. Seeking to replicate the feel of a toboggan ride, Disney had his Imagineers devise a new kind of track using tubes of steel. The result was a smoother trip, tighter twists and a design that changed the industry.

8. The Corkscrew

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Location: Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.
Year it opened: 1975

After the Flip Flap Railway and its ilk vanished, Americans had to wait 80 years before a roller coaster could safely flip them head over heels. The coaster to claim that territory was the Corkscrew, which had the audacity to go upside down not once, but twice. Imitators quickly followed, and soon roller coasters across the country were giving riders a head rush.

9. The Beast

Joyrides.com

Location: King’s Island, Mason, Ohio
Year it opened: 1979

When it debuted, the aptly named Beast was the tallest, longest and fastest wooden coaster in the world. It was also the first roller coaster marketed to a mass audience. An unprecedented publicity blitz heralded its arrival, featuring magazine pieces, reports on news programs and, unheard of at the time, TV commercials. The Beast became an overnight celebrity. Everyone knew about it, and everyone wanted to take it for a ride. After that, the commercialization of giant coasters became the norm.

10. Top Thrill Dragster

Wikimedia Commons

Location: Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
Year it opened: 2003

Ever since the Cyclone topped the 100-foot mark, American roller coasters have only crept higher, spawning names for every new elevation reached. Hyper coaster. Giga coaster. And, with the record-shattering Top Thrill Dragster, strata coaster. Blasting riders up and over a 420-foot hill at a top speed of 120 mph, it was a new kind of ride for a new millennium. Bigger, faster, more extreme. Although it’s no longer the tallest or the fastest, Dragster pointed roller coasters in a new direction — straight up.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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