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Antiques // Public Domain

10 Surprising Early Versions of Santa Claus

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Antiques // Public Domain

Big belly, red fur coat, beard; the image of Santa Claus has been pretty firmly set for much of the 20th century. But Santa used to look quite different from the familiar fellow we know today. He used to be skinny, then he was tiny, and in some cases he rode in a flying blimp or wore a three-cornered hat. So the next time you hear the tune “Here Comes Santa Claus,” try imagining if one of these alternative early Santas showed up instead.

1. THE ORIGINAL ST. NICK

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

Gaunt, bald, barefoot, and decked out in ecclesiastical robes (complete with halo above his head), this version of St. Nicholas looks nothing like the jolly fat man we know as “Santa Claus.” But in fact, this was the first image of the character in the United States. Commissioned by New-York Historical Society co-founder John Pintard for that organization’s annual St. Nicholas feast day dinner (held December 6, 1810—December 25 wouldn’t become Santa’s day until years later), the image was meant to help the attendees venerate this virtuous patron saint of sailors and travelers. Pintard hoped New Yorkers would embrace St. Nick’s moral example as a tribute to the city’s old Dutch heritage, perhaps even elevating the figure to patron saint of Gotham. Pintard would fail in this mission, but the character he introduced to the U.S. would have arguably greater impact on New York, and the country as a whole.

2. BIRCH STICK SANTA

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

This “Santeclaus” appears in the first known picture book featuring the character—1821’s The Children’s Friend, published by William Gilley. This Santa is a bit more fun than Pintard’s: He rides a sleigh driven by a single reindeer (inspired by Washington Irving’s satirical description in his 1809 A History of New-York, in which St. Nick gets around on a flying wagon); rather than a halo, he wears a furry hat—and a smile. But lest one think this guy is all fun and gifts, note that stick held in his right hand. Santa was still chiefly a disciplinarian, who leaves a “long, black birchen rod” in children’s stockings, urging parents to use it “When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

3. SNEAKY ST. NICK

St. Nicholas Center // Public Domain

This mischievous fellow, completed by artist Robert Walter Weir around 1838, is a far cry from the upright bishop of the early 1800s. He more closely resembles the goofy version of St. Nicholas that Irving described in A History of New-York, who smoked a clay pipe, and while “laying a finger beside his nose” rode over treetops in a flying wagon, bringing gifts to the children of New York.

It was Irving’s figure that inspired Clement Clarke Moore’s version of a “right jolly old elf” in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” with twinkling eyes, and the appearance of “a pedler just opening his pack,” and which also clearly inspired Weir here. The kind, jolly version of Santa would win out in the next decades, but these more puckish takes on the character were once the norm.

4. P.T. BARNUM’S SANTA

Antiques // Public Domain

This is a particularly weird example of the playful versions of Santa that would be replaced soon enough. When Swedish singer Jenny Lind toured the U.S. in 1850, her promoter, P.T. Barnum, created this pamphlet (along with a variety of other Lind-related merchandise) to help generate interest in her shows. While the pamphlet describes Santa as a fellow with pockets full of presents who flies down the chimney, little else resembles the modern version of Santa. He wears a three-cornered hat and looks like an 18th-century patriot. He rides with Lind on a broomstick and goes up to a mountaintop, declaring, “I am dancing a jig, I am having a freak.” Barnum’s Santa reflects how undefined the character remained through the mid-1800s.   

5. THOMAS NAST’S TINY SANTA

Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings For The Human Race via Archive.org // Public Domain

Thomas Nast, bane of New York’s Tammany machine and creator of the elephant as a symbol for the Republican Party, is among the greatest political cartoonists in American history. But perhaps his most influential works are his illustrations of St. Nicholas. Beginning in 1863 and continuing for about a quarter-century, Nast drew annual Christmas illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, featuring the jolly Santa engaged in all sorts of activities: taking phone calls, bringing gifts to Union soldiers, or racing Mother Goose.

The popularity and wide circulation of these illustrations has led to Nast being credited as the one person who firmed up the modern image of Santa. But not all of his works look like the figure we recognize today. In a number of illustrations, Santa is very short—taking the “elf” description in Moore’s poem to the extreme, Santa is depicted as a head or two shorter than the children to whom he was bringing gifts. In this image, Nast takes him even smaller, making Santa and an assortment of other nursery-rhyme characters miniature.

6. L. FRANK BAUM’S YOUNG SANTA

Bauman Rare Books // Public Domain

By the 20th century, Santa’s personality and characteristics were largely defined. But little had been said about his past. Sure, there was the historic Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra with a rich mythology of his own. But by the 1900s, Santa Claus was so far removed from this religious progenitor that he merited an origin story of his own. L. Frank Baum, the mind behind the Wizard of Oz series, took a crack at it with his 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, offering up an imaginative biography of the North Pole dweller. He describes how baby Claus was found abandoned in the forest of Burzee, was adopted by Ak the Master Woodsman, kidnapped by the evil army of the Awgwas, and befriended the reindeer Flossie and Glossie. It’s a wild tale, and includes some odd illustrations of Santa as an infant and young man, dressed more like Fred Flintstone than St. Nick. 

7. SANTA AND HIS FLYING MACHINE 

Via Smithsonian Magazine // Public Domain

A sleigh is so passé. That was the conclusion of some illustrators during the late 19th century and early 20th century, when they began drawing Santa on postcards, magazines, and advertisements in futuristic (for the era) flying machines. An illustration in the December 1922 issue of Science and Invention depicted a radio-obsessed boy dreaming of Santa arriving with gifts of radio parts in an elaborate contraption resembling a blimp. A postcard from 1908 shows Santa in his version of a hot-air balloon with “Merry Christmas” emblazoned on the side. This motif popped up throughout this era, but the sleigh proved far more enduring. 

8. SEXY SANTA CLAUS 

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Puck, a satirical magazine that published out of New York City during the 19th and early 20th centuries, featured Santa on their cover a number of times. He looks much like the Santa who became widely adopted as the definitive character, but the unusual part is less about how Santa looks than what he is doing. In the image above, illustrated by Australian artist Frank A. Nankivell, he is enjoying the affections of two beautiful women who look nothing like Mrs. Claus. In another, from Christmas 1905, Santa is getting up close and personal with a comely blonde.

9. STICKUP SANTA

Print Collection // Public Domain

On its 1912 cover, illustrated by Will Crawford, Puck featured Santa pointing a handgun at the viewer, with the caption “Hands Up! As Santa Claus Looks to Some of Us.” The illustration satirizes the concerns expressed by many at this time about how Christmas giving had gotten out of control. This was the same year that saw the launch of SPUG—the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, with members including Teddy Roosevelt, who protested the expectation that individuals were supposed to buy gifts for an ever-expanding list of friends, family, and acquaintances.

10. SMOKING SANTA 

University of Kentucky // Public Domain

Coca-Cola is erroneously credited with “creating Santa,” and while that’s not the case, they did help spread his image far and wide through ubiquitous print advertisements and billboards. But while the soft drink company was and continues to be one of the most prominent users of Santa as a pitchman, he has also graced ads for more products than could fit in his sack—including some made by Big Tobacco. He has appeared on print ads for Marlboro, Pall Mall, Camel, and many others.

Oobject rounded up a handful of these mid-20th century images. While the kid-friendly promotion of smoking is in poor taste, it should be noted that Santa was a smoker in his earliest iterations, puffing on a clay pipe in Irving’s A History of New-York and “the stump of a pipe” in Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Santa has since kicked the habit, so the only smoky smell on his suit now is from chimney soot.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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