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A Brief History of Snow Globes

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The way Erwin Perzy's family tells it, if Thomas Edison had designed a better light bulb, Perzy would never have invented the snow globe. 

Back in 1900, Erwin Perzy I was working in Vienna as a fine instruments mechanic when a surgeon came to him with a problem. Although the surgeon had electric light bulbs installed in his operating theater, the newly invented product didn't cast great light. He wanted to know if Perzy could improve on the dim bulbs and make them brighter. So he got to work. As Perzy hunted for inspiration, he noticed that shoemakers had stumbled into an interesting trick: By filling glass globes with water and placing them in front of candles, they created tiny spotlights in their shops.

When Perzy tried the trick with a lightbulb, he discovered the brightness wasn't improved. But what if he added something to the water that the light could bounce off of? Perzy started with white semolina flakes, used in baby food at the time. “He poured [them] into the glass globe, and [they] got soaked by the water and floated very slowly to the base of the globe,” his grandson, Erwin Perzy III, told the BBC. “This effect reminded him of snowfall.”

Inspiration struck: What if he used his technical expertise to create a tiny diorama in his snowy little world? Perzy made a miniature replica of the Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Mariazell, Austria, placed it in his water-filled globe, sealed it, and mounted it to a gypsum base that he painted black. And voila—the first snow globe was born.

At least, that's the story Austrians like to peddle. But what about the snow globes that appeared a few decades before, in another country entirely?

PARISIAN BEGINNINGS

According to Nancy McMichael, a snow globe collector profiled in a 1997 article in The New York Times, the first snow globes were showcased at the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition by a local glassware firm. She isn't the only one who noticed. As described in the (exhaustive) reports of the U.S. Commissioners to the exposition, the water-filled globes each featured a little man holding an umbrella, and "a white powder which, when the paper weight is turned upside down, falls in an imitation of a snow storm."

The next iteration of the snow globe came in 1889, again at the Paris Universal Exposition. As McMichael writes in her book Snowdomes, this time the globe—which was the work of an enterprising souvenir vendor—featured a tiny ceramic version of the just-unveiled Eiffel Tower, and the whole ball fit in the palm of a hand. (An example of the globe lives at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Wisconsin.)

“The rest,” McMichael wrote, “is history.”

But it’s interesting history, one that reflects a larger story about how items were manufactured and sold, and what made them popular in the 20th century.

Though Perzy—who patented his globe in 1900—didn’t invent the snow globe, he and his brother are responsible for catapulting the souvenir into the position of tchotchke primacy it holds today. Seizing on the invention, the pair opened a shop, Original Wiener Schneekugel Manufaktur, in Vienna. Today, that shop is still run by an Erwin Perzy—his grandson, Erwin Perzy III—and they still make snow globes, containing Austrian tourist attractions, animals, and Christmas themes, in the same Vienna workshop where the original Perzy practiced his craft.

But it's easy to forget that Perzy was also an artisan. His items were painstakingly hand-crafted. So while his snow globes (also called “snow domes” or “snow weights”) were exquisite and popular, they were neither cheap nor widespread. For the snow globe to go global, it needed to be mass-produced—and that's how America got into the business. 

A MASS-MARKET MEMENTO

In 1927, a Pittsburgh man named Joseph Garaja filed his application for a patent for a liquid-filled novelty paperweight that improved upon previous designs; the design he presented and later sold was a fish floating in sea grass. But it wasn't Garaja’s under-the-sea theme that impressed the industry. His real contribution to snow globe manufacturing was in pioneering the now-obvious method of assembling the globes underwater to ensure they were entirely filled. This, David Bear wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000, “revolutionized” the snow globe industry: “They went from being expensive mementos individually crafted by skilled artisans to items that could be cheaply mass-produced and sold.”

Which they were: In the 1930s, William Snyder, a New Jersey entrepreneur, began selling souvenir globes for $1, around $18 now. Snyder would later earn two patents related to snow globes and his company, Atlas Crystal Works, would become a major manufacturer of the items.

But the big boom for snow globes came, as it did for so many other things in the 20th century, after a little product placement. In the 1940 Ginger Rogers vehicle Kitty Foyle, young Kitty launches a flashback scene when she shakes a snow globe containing the figure of a girl on a sled. According to Connie Moore and Harry Rinker in Snow Globes: A Collector’s Guide to Selecting, Displaying and Restoring Snow Globes, sales of the keepsakes skyrocketed 200 percent after the film came out.

The next year, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane also used a snow globe—containing a little log cabin and made by Perzy’s company—for that monumental opening scene: When publishing titan Charles Kane dies with the word “Rosebud” on his lips, and the snow globe he's holding drops from his hand and shatters. The 1940s also witnessed the dawning of a new era in advertising ubiquity, and brands began making snow globes to advertise their products. Other popular themes included World War II iconography, such as a soldier at attention.

By the 1950s, innovation in plastics and injection-molding meant that snow globes could be made even more cheaply. Even the “snow” that floats around inside the globe, called “flitter” in the business, could be made from plastics—no need to use marble, bone chips, or ground rice anymore (mass-produced plastic glitter, which was allegedly invented in 1934, became part of the snow globe story only later). The water filling the globes was also frequently mixed with glycol, to make the snow fall more slowly, although sometimes it was mixed with far more lethal substances. At least one manufacturer, McMichael told The New York Times, began mixing antifreeze into the water to keep the globes from freezing and cracking during shipping. Stories of children becoming ill after drinking the water from snow globes sometimes made headlines, including one about children who became seriously sick after drinking snow globe water taken directly from polluted Hong Kong Bay.

Despite those stories, the industry continued to grow. Four major companies in America continued to produce snow globes of varying quality and subject including souvenirs, but also holiday globes and novelty gifts. It was a similar landscape in Europe, with a few manufacturers dominating the snow globe scene.

By the 1980s, snow globes were still a staple of the gift industry, but they’d also become the epitome of kitsch—probably because everyone and everything from Disney’s Bambi to the Lone Ranger to Niagara Falls and the White House could be put under glass and forced to endure frequent and bewildering snowstorms. But what does the market look like today? 

A GLOBE FOR EVERYONE

Oddly enough, snow globes remain big business. There is a sizable collector's market for both antique and novelty domes. And Erwin Perzy III’s company is still healthy. The Vienna shop produces upwards of 200,000 snow globes a year, and that’s just a small part of the market. It’s perhaps a mark of how familiar a form a snow globe is, and what innocent—almost saccharine—kitsch they’re meant to be that they can be so gleefully perverted, as this collection of weird, macabre, and wonderful snow globes demonstrates.

So this holiday, consider the humble snow globe as a gift for someone you love. But if you do buy in, remember not  to bring your snow globe on a plane (unless it’s smaller than a tennis ball and can fit entirely into a Ziploc bag). And always adhere to these words from collector McMichael: “'No matter how thirsty you are, no matter how desperate, never, ever drink the water from a snow dome.'”

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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