Original image

11 of the Oldest Snack Foods We're Still Eating

Original image

The shelves of your local grocery store may be crowded with new-fangled taste sensations like coffee-flavored potato chips and candy bars stuffed with hip ingredients like bacon (always, always bacon), but plenty of snack foods we still consume in mass quantities have got some major staying power. Turns out, your great-grandparents might have chowed down on your favorite treat long before you were even born, and that very same grab-and-go snack will likely be around long after you’re gone. That’s something to chew on.

1. Pretzels

Pretzels are widely considered to be the world’s oldest snack food (although they’ve got a little bit of a friendly competition going with another entry on this list). Pretzel historians—yes, pretzel historians—hold that the modern pretzel’s predecessor was first made in the 6th century by an Italian monk, a crafty baker who actually used it as a treat to reward his youngest church attendees. That might be why the word “pretzel” is from the Latin word “pretzola,” which loosely translates to “little reward.”

2. Popcorn

Popcorn and pretzels may happily pair at a party, but the two crunchy snacks have long been caught in a terrible debate over which treat is actually the world’s oldest snack. History holds that Native Americans used to indulge in the snack, with archeologists reporting finding popcorn ears that they can date all the way back to being snacked on some 5,600 years ago. Clearly, no one was using a microwave at the time, but it’s believed that Native American would throw their ears right on a fire, in order to pop out kernels in impressive fashion.

3. Triscuits

Nabisco initially touted their Triscuit crackers as being “baked by electricity!,” a snazzy way to make a relatively timeless-tasting snack sound extremely modern. The shredded wheat cracker was first invented back in 1903 in Niagara Falls, where it really was cooked up using electricity. For its first two decades in existence, Triscuits were much bigger than their current counterparts: they were 2 ¼ inches by 4 inches. By 1924, they had been shrunk down to their familiar 2-inch by 2-inch size.

4. Oreo Cookies

Nabisco—formerly known as the National Biscuit Company—also pioneered “milk’s favorite cookie” pretty early on. The first Oreo was made in 1912 in Nabisco’s factory located in the Chelsea section of New York City. Weirdly, the Oreo came after the Hydrox cookie, and Nabisco created it solely to compete with Sunshine’s own sandwich cookie, which was first made in 1908.

5. Cracker Jack

Popcorn’s age may be in question, but one of its most famous related products will suffer no such indignities. The roots of Cracker Jack can be traced all the way back to 1871 Chicago, when German immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim started cooking up and selling his own popcorn. Legend holds that Rueckheim and his brother Louis introduced the sweet and crunchy treat we know as Cracker Jack to the audience at Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, though no actual evidence has ever been produced to back that claim up. Still, by 1896, Cracker Jack was being produced for sale, eventually becoming a favorite of popcorn lovers and baseball fans everywhere.

6. Lay’s Potato Chips

Lay’s – which has gone through a staggering number of name changes during the course of its long existence, including the incredibly clunky “Lay’s Lay Lingo Company” and “H.W. Lay Lingo & Company”—introduced their classic chip in 1932. The invention of the continuous potato processor in 1942 allowed the chips to be made in massive quantities, soon pushing the chip empire into the stratosphere.

7. Fritos

Although Fritos haven’t yet reached their hundredth birthday, they’re still a pioneer of non-potato chip technology and innovation. Corn chip obsessive Elmer Doolin purchased the chip recipe from a fellow San Antonio, Texas resident in the early 1930s—Doolin was particularly keen to find a chip that wouldn’t go stale too quickly – and started mass producing his chips in 1932. Doolin knew his snacks: he also invented Cheetos!

8. Twinkies

Getty Images

“The Golden Sponge Cake With Creamy Filling” was invented in 1930 when industrious baker James Alexander Dewar conceived of an idea to use cream-filling machines that previously only stuffed shortcakes with in-season strawberry cream to fill cakes with banana cream the rest of the year. Yes, the first Twinkie held banana cream, though banana rationing during World War II forced the switch to vanilla cream, a switch that proved popular enough to stay on as the official Twinkie flavor.

9. Jell-O

Jell-O’s key ingredient, gelatin, has long been used to hold together desserts and other sweet treats, and “jelly moulds” were a hot dessert during the Victorian era. But because gelatin was hard to make, it didn’t catch on with a big audience until Peter Cooper patented powdered gelatin in 1845. In 1897, Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked his own powdered gelatin dessert, called Jell-O. New flavors soon followed, and the rest is (jiggly) history.

10. Marshmallows

Marshmallows have been around since ancient Egypt, and were often used to soothe sore throats (complete with sweeteners like honey mixed in to help with the work). By the 19th century, French confectioners mixed things up by whipping the marshmallow medicine, turning it into a real treat. By 1948, the extrusion process made it possible for marshmallows to be made in an automated environment, thanks to machines that gave them the cylindrical shape they’re now most recognizable for.

11. Necco Wafers


One of America’s very first candies, the New England Confectionary Company (“Necco”—get it?) first manufactured the wafers in 1847, envisioning the thin treats as their signature item. The slim snack owes its history to Oliver Chase, who invented a cutting machine that allowed the slices to be made so thin.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
Original image
Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]