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The Dynamic History of the Toy Chemistry Set

The chemistry set is an icon in the toy world. It's ignited entire generations of aspiring scientists, and more than a few experiments gone awry, but it wasn't an instant classic. In its 100 years on the scene, the toy chemistry set has seen its share of ups and downs on the long journey into the hearts and gift boxes of consumers.

The toy actually has purely practical roots. In the 1800s, portable kits containing chemicals, glassware, and various tools were sold for use in the academic world. Stores steadily cranked out the kits for students and professors until the distribution was largely halted by the outbreak of World War I (the kits were mostly assembled in England with chemicals supplied by Germany).

Meanwhile, two American brothers found inspiration in the chemistry kits and the rising popularity of a brand new toy, the Erector Set, which made its debut in 1913. John J. and Harold Mitchell Porter, owners of The Porter Chemical Company in Maryland, took a cue from the DIY spirit of the Erector Set and began manufacturing Chemcraft sets, similar to the English chemistry kits (they contained chemicals, a gas lamp, labware, and instructions), but marketed as a toy. Soon after the Porter Chemcraft set hit store shelves, the company found its first competitor. Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, caught wind of the brothers’ idea and, in 1920, decided to debut a chemistry set of his own.

By the '30s, chemistry sets were being sold at major retailers like Woolworths, with advertisements emblazoned with “How to be a Boy Chemist!” and “Master the Mysteries of Modern Chemistry!” encouraging kids—mostly  boys—to explore the exciting world of science. Parents were on board, too. These chemistry sets were one of the first widely distributed toys whose advertisements appealed to fresh-from-the-Depression parents, playing on the belief that a chemistry set was not merely a toy, but a valuable first step toward a career in science.

Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."

Chemistry sets remained popular throughout the following decades, as new editions were released often to adapt to the changing attitudes toward different scientific disciplines. With the dawn of television came an entertainment-focused set that included a guide to putting on a magic show with chemistry. After World War II and the Manhattan Project, many new chemistry sets had a nuclear tilt. With the Space Race and moon landing around the corner, scientists were becoming a kind of superstar. The field of science was experiencing an unprecedented bump in coolness, and chemistry sets—finally giving kids access to science, actual science—became all the rage.

But the sets weren’t necessarily aimed at making science accessible for everyone—they were largely marketed toward white males. From advertisements to their packaging, the target market was clear.

Kristin Frederick-Frost, curator and collections manager at the Chemical Heritage Museum told WIRED, "The typical historical narrative goes that after the war and after Sputnik there’s this huge push to get more scientists in the field. If it was purely about mobilizing as many scientists as possible, the sets would have been made to be attractive to far more flavors of people than just white boys."

A rare set marketed toward girls from the 1950s. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn't just a narrow focus when it came to the intended user, the intended field was also zeroed in on defense and industrial use. Still, the kits did influence the lives of many. Robert F. Curl, Jr., recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote in his Nobel autobiography: “When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice.”

That golden era gave way to the '70s and '80s, when the public developed a growing mistrust of chemistry and its industries. In the years of Agent Orange, Three Mile Island, and Silent Spring, the American public’s shiny, futuristic perception of science was replaced with suspicion and a fear that chemistry could not only win wars for America, but wage war on its own citizens. Science was no longer exciting and cool, but scary, and chemistry sets declined in popularity. Chemistry sets now came with an emphasis on safety and many changes were inarguably for the better, as the kits of old were fraught with potential dangers. For example, glassblowing kits supplied children with a blowtorch, and some nuclear-focused kits of the '50s contained radioactive uranium ore. A string of consumer protection laws in the 1970s did away with acid in chemistry sets, among several other limitations in the sets’ contents. Chemistry sets never quite reclaimed their mojo—for the most part, today’s sets are tamer, containing smaller amounts of chemicals, and, in some cases, none at all.

Some people are still championing the chemistry set’s cause, however. A recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at assembling and distributing old-school chemistry sets racked up more than 500 backers and nearly $150,000. The set is designed to match the one sold by the A.C. Gilbert company from the '20s through the '40s, chemicals and all. Taking a more futuristic approach, the Chemical Heritage Foundation released a free app called ChemCrafter, which enables iPad users to “create surprising color changes, encounter fire and smoke, release various gases, and shatter equipment,” all from the safety of the screen. It might not compare to the real thing, but these efforts might just be priming the old-school chemistry set for a comeback. 

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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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iStock

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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