21 Failed Inventions

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1. Hey, I'm Mike, this is mental_floss on YouTube, and did you know that in the 1970s, Henry Smolinski and Harold Blake invented the AVE Mizar, a flying Ford Pinto? I mean, of course if you're going to choose a car to make fly, why not the Pinto? It could fly up to 12,000 feet and reach up to 130 miles an hour. One minor problem was the car's right wing, it failed one trial run in 1973, then it failed later again that year in a crash that killed both inventors. And that is the first of many failed inventions, either practically or commercially, that I'm gonna tell you about here today.

2. Something tells me that an episode about failed inventions isn't going to be the most ... uplifting episode of the mental_floss list show, but to get started, Mattel's game console Intellivision was released in 1979 to compete with the Atari 2600. The invention itself wasn't bad, it has since been named number 14 on IGN's list of greatest game consoles of all time, but it wasn't successful. Within four years of its release, Mattel had lost 394 million dollars and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

3. You know what really grinds my gears? When you're eating your hard boiled egg at breakfast, and you go in for the slice and it just rolls away. The Egg Cuber was exactly what it sounds like: you put an egg into a little plastic contraption and you squash it until it's a cube. Finally!

4. The Bell Rocket Belt was a very promising invention for the U.S. army in the 1950s and '60s. It was a rocket pack that helped a person leap for a short distance. President John F. Kennedy was even given a personal demonstration, but the belt only put a person in the air for 21 seconds at a time, enough to reach a mere 120 meters. So along with potential altitude, the army also lost interest.

5. Another futuristic-sounding 1950s invention: the flying saucer camera. It took two pictures at once, one regular picture and one that separated light out into colors so that you could see more clearly where the flying saucers were coming from. Believe it or not, it was developed for the U.S. Air Force because of all people, of course they know the truth is out there.

6. Thomas Edison invented an electric pen, which would make copies of documents people were writing by creating stencils as they wrote. It had some initial success, but couldn't compete with inventions like the typewriter. Although the basic design was later reused for another invention, a much less efficient way of creating documents: the first electric tattoo needle in 1891.

7. In 1948, a man named Joe Gilpin invented a motorized surfboard which he sold for $345. It went 7 miles an hour, was steerable, but really had nothing to do with surfing.

8. Franz Reichelt created a wearable parachute in the early 1900s. The suit was supposed to turn into a parachute during a plummet. On test dummies it worked sometimes, but not all the time. Reichelt, though, he had faith and got permission to test it from the Eiffel Tower in 1912. He jumped, his invention wrapped around him, and he died. I'm starting to see a pattern developing here. If you're an inventor and you're inventing something that will help you fly, maybe don't test it on yourself.

9. Flying tanks, it turns out, were almost a thing. Invented by the U.S., or the Soviet Union, or Japan, or the U.K., but they didn't really make sense. They were very heavy, because they're tanks, and the tow planes tended to overheat.

10. You may remember the year 2000 invention CueCat, a barcode scanner shaped like a cat. You could scan barcodes for magazines or products that would take you to a URL, but no one wanted to do that so the CueCat was obsolete within a year. QR codes, though, that is the wave of the future.

11. In 1930s London, you could buy a mesh baby cage to suspend your child outside your apartment window. The invention was supposed to be for the "health" of the babies, so they could get fresh air.

12. The Glamour Bonnet was a bonnet that covered your whole head with a see-through part for your eyes from the 1940s. In the helmet you'd experience low atmospheric pressure, like a vacuum, that was supposed to improve skin complexion. Glamour Bonnet is also the name of my hair metal revival band.

13. Similarly, the shower hood from the 1970s in Germany covered a person's whole head. Then, they could shower while still keeping their makeup and hair intact. I guess someone eventually figured out that people like to wash their hair too. 

14. In the mid-1990s, Thirsty Dog! and Thirsty Cat! were released. They were flavored water for your pets. Beef- and fish-flavored. Yum.

15. Speaking of gross flavors, honegar was a food created in 1959 by Doctor DeForest C. Jarvis; it was a combination of honey and apple-cider vinegar. Surprisingly, people didn't love the taste.

16. A phone-answering robot, invented in 1964 by Klaus Sholes, was a bust. The main problem: the robot didn't really answer the phone, it just picked it up, and answered the phone in silence, making it more of a phone-touching robot than a phone-answering robot, really. 

17. In the 1960s, a solution for reading on a crowded subway was invented: rush hour reading glasses. You could read a newspaper that you were holding over your head, thanks to glasses with right angles. I'm not gonna lie, I sorta want one of these for reading my phone on the subway. 

18. The Vespa 150 TAP, a military Vespa complete with a rifle, was designed for the French army in the 1950s. One major problem: you couldn't shoot the rifle from the scooter, you had to remove it because there was no aiming device ... and also you were on a scooter.

19. Nintendo's 1995 Virtual Boy lost the company quite a bit of money and was discontinued within one year. It was a portable 3D console that you had to cram your face into in order to play. Majors problem were eye strain, and the fact that most Nintendo developers focused on the N64 at the time. I actually had one of these. You also needed about two cubic feet to use it comfortably and it came is a weird briefcase. It definitely looked more like surveying equipment than a video game.

20. Back in the '30s, people apparently had a need for a cigarette umbrella. it was a device you stick your cigarette in to smoke out of, and a little umbrella kept your cigarette dry from the rain. Adorable.

21. Finally, I return to the salon to tell you that the monowheel is still around, but when they were invented in the 1800s, they were intended to be a useful mode of transportation. Essentially, it's a wheel that you sit in, moved forward by other wheels inside of it. In the 1930s, a motorized monowheel was built that could go 93 miles an hour. But still, turns out people just prefer bicycles.

Thanks for watching mental_floss on YouTube. This episode was made with the help of these very nice people. My name is Mike Rugnetta, if you like my face, you can find more of it on YouTube at PBS Idea Channel, and if you like my voice, you can find it on my podcast, Reasonably Sound. Links to both of those things in the Dooblydoo, and heyyy, DFTBA.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.