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7 Fascinating Facts About the First American Novel

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On this date in 1789, Boston bookseller Isaiah Thomas and Company published The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature. Released just six years after the official end of the Revolutionary War, the book—a cautionary tome, published in two volumes, about the dangers of giving in to passion and featuring unwitting incest and suicide—is generally considered to be the first American novel. Within its pages, the author not only defended novels as a whole—which, at the time, were thought to be morally bereft—but also his novel, promising that it was moral as could be: “The dangerous consequences of SEDUCTION are exposed,” the author wrote, and the "Advantages of FEMALE EDUCATION set forth and recommended.” Here are a few things you might not have known about the book.


The Power of Sympathy is a book written as a series of letters between characters, a type of literary device known as the epistolary technique. Other examples of the form—which was popular from the 18th century right up to the present day and could include any type of document, from diary entries to newspaper clippings—include Clarissa (1748), Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), and Dracula (1897).


Just five months before Sympathy was published, Boston resident Fanny Apthorp committed suicide, and her reasons for doing so became a central plotline in the first volume of the book. The location of the scandal was changed from Boston to Rhode Island, and its participants were given new monikers—but according to William S. Kable, then an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina who wrote the introduction to a 1969 edition of Sympathy, that only “[threw] a very thin veil of fiction” over the actual scandal [PDF]:

In the story, Ophelia (Frances Theodora Apthorp) is seduced by her sister’s husband, Martin (Perez Morton). After their illicit relationship produces a child, Ophelia’s father, Shepherd (Charles Apthorp) is bound and determined to bring about a settlement. Just before a scheduled confrontation of the various parties, Ophelia (Fanny) poisons herself.

Morton—a friend of future president John Adams—didn’t appear to suffer from the affair, personally or professionally: He and his wife, Sarah Wentworth Morton, later reconciled, and he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives just five years after the scandal.


There was no name on Sympathy on its initial publication, but the book did have a dedication, which read:

To the Young Ladies,
Of United Columbia,
Intended to represent the specious causes,
And to
Explore the fatal Consequences of Seduction;
To inspire the female mind
With a principle of self complacency
And to
Promote the Economy of Human Life,
Are inscribed,
With Esteem and Sincerity,
By their
Friend and Humble Servant,
The Author


Despite the fact that Thomas advertised the book in several papers (the ads read, “This Day Published THE POWER OF SYMPATHY, OR THE TRIUMPH OF NATURE, The First American Novel”) and released two versions (a version bound in calf leather for 9 shillings, and one in blue paper for 6), Milton Ellis, co-author of Philenia: the Life and Works of Mrs. Sarah Wentworth Morton, wrote in a 1933 issue of American Literature that Sympathy was “little noticed and soon forgotten. Aside from advertisements and two puffs in the Massachusetts Magazine, also published by Isaiah Thomas … it [was] mentioned in print only five times in 1789, only twice between 1790 and 1800, and not at all during the 50 years following.”

That was likely because, at the request of the Mortons and Apthorps—and with the cooperation of the author—publication of the book ceased, and unbought copies were destroyed, to avoid painful rehashing of the scandal. But that effort wasn’t completely successful: Advertisements for the book appeared a few years later, and it was still available for purchase.


After her husband’s affair, Sarah Wentworth Morton became a widely-published poet; she died in 1846. The rumor that she was the author of Sympathy began in the mid-1800s, but didn’t appear in print until 1878, when historian Francis Samuel Drake said in The Town of Roxbury that “The seduction of a near and dear relative is said to have formed the groundwork of the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy, written by Mrs. Morton.”

In June 1894, the book was reissued; the title page read “By Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp),” and the book’s editor called her the "self-acknowledged author.” Then, in October of that year, Bostonian magazine began publishing the novel in installments; editor Arthur W. Brayley attributed the book to Morton once again.


By December 1894, however, Brayley had changed his tune and printed a retraction in the Bostonian. What had changed? Eighty-year-old Rebecca Volentine Thompson came forward with new information. She revealed that it was her uncle, William Hill Brown—a neighbor of the Apthorps—who had written Sympathy. Brown, just 24 when Sympathy was released, was likely well aware of the scandal it might cause; not wanting to ruin his future writing prospects, he chose to publish anonymously.

There had been clues that the author was a man. For one, the title page referred to the author as a he (“Fain would he strew Life’s thorny way with flowers …”). And contemporary sources also used the masculine pronoun when referring to the author: According to Ellis, “one calls him an ‘amiable youth’; and one, in alluding to him, substitutes five dashes for the letters of his name” (Brown has five letters). But it was Thompson’s story that sealed the deal: According to Kable, she told Brayley that “the Apthorps and the Browns were intimate friends. Young William was, therefore, thoroughly acquainted with all of the details of the ‘horrible affair’ and was thus furnished with the ‘material for a strong story.’”

After Thompson came forward, the remaining installments of the book were published under Brown’s name.


In 1789, the year Sympathy was published, Brown also wrote “Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation,” which appeared in Massachusetts Magazine (published by Isaiah Thomas). He later penned a play called West Point Preserved (first performed in 1797, three years after Brown died) and some fables and essays. A second novel, Ira and Isabella, was published in 1807 (according to Kable, everything from its misspellings to its plot are very similar to Sympathy, but this novel has a happy ending). More essays and fables were published posthumously. But, according to the forward of the 1969 edition of Sympathy, the book was “the only one of his works to achieve any lasting distinction” [PDF].

Sadly, Sympathy wasn't a great novel. Kable notes that while the book “is the product of a sophisticated reader”—it's littered with literary allusions, from Shakespeare and Swift to Noah Webster and Lord Chesterfield— “… the novel is obviously the work of an unsophisticated writer. In important matters of plotting and characterization as well as in details of diction and grammar, Brown’s clumsiness is all too apparent. ... The ‘thinness of realization’ meant that his finished product fell far short of greatness.”

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.