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Library of Congress // Public Domain

9 Things You Might Not Know About Uncle Sam

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Library of Congress // Public Domain

March 13 marks the anniversary of Uncle Sam’s first American depiction, but in the beginning, he didn’t look much like a Fourth of July float or that famous “I Want You!” military recruitment poster. The first illustrated American Uncle Sam isn’t even the hero of his own cartoon. Here’s a look at our national personification, his strange history, and his even stranger family tree. 

1. HE FIRST APPEARED IN AN EDITORIAL CARTOON CRITICAL OF THE UNITED STATES.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On March 13, 1852, the New York Lantern published an editorial cartoon titled “Raising the Wind; or, Both Sides of the Story,” criticizing United States policies on shipping. Cartoonist Frank Bellew depicted John Bull, the anthropomorphized representation of Great Britain, pumping a bellows to help his ships sail across a small tub. Uncle Sam, a fellow with a big hat and striped pants, stood on the side and watched. This was the first time anyone in the U.S. had drawn Uncle Sam, although by some accounts there were earlier depictions in London's Punch, and the character was by no means Bellew’s creation. 

2. THE NAME MIGHT GO BACK TO A MEAT PACKER.

According to many sources, linking the young United States to the name “Uncle Sam” dates back to the War of 1812 (though some historians differ on the details). The most widely known version goes like this: The Americans were fighting the British at the Canadian border, and a Troy, New York, man named Samuel Wilson saw an opportunity for profit. He got in with the military delivering meat to them packed in barrels, which were labeled “U.S.” to indicate the seller. Wilson was widely liked and highly regarded among both the locals and the soldiers, who began joking that obviously the initials referred to his own name, rather than the government’s. The joke stuck, as did Wilson’s fame—his birthday, September 13, has been celebrated as Uncle Sam Day since 1989.

3. HE WASN’T THE FIRST FIGURE TO REPRESENT THE NEW COUNTRY.

"Brother Jonathan" welcoming other countries to U.S. Centennial circa 1876, LOC via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The figure of Brother Jonathan predates even the Revolutionary War, with possible connections to the Puritan Roundheads of the English Civil War. Early on, he was used to describe New England, and came to mean Yankees in general. George Washington was said to refer to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull by the name, though that story may be apocryphal. Loyalists to the crown also used the term dismissively to refer to Revolution-era patriots. By some accounts, Uncle Sam evolved out of Brother Jonathan, and the two figures were used interchangeably from the 1830s-1860s.

4. AT ONE POINT, AMERICA WAS A WOMAN.

Spirit of the Frontier, John Gast, 1872, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, it was Columbia who embodied the young nation. Inspired by classical Roman imagery and derived from the sailor Christopher Columbus’s name, she appeared throughout art, architecture, and media of the 18th and 19th centuries as a warrior, a guardian, and an innocent girl. She was the American Britannia, and “Hail, Columbia!” was an unofficial national anthem. The colonial black poet Phillis Wheatley even sent George Washington an inspirational poem about the figure. Columbia gave her name to the 1893 World’s Fair, widely known as the Columbian Exposition. Yet her popularity fell as Uncle Sam’s rose, and by World War I she was eclipsed by her sister: Lady Liberty.

5.  A FAMOUS CARTOONIST GAVE HIM HIS BEARD.

When it comes to creating iconography, cartoonist Thomas Nast was a giant in the American landscape of the Civil War and the later 19th century. He created the kindly, sentimental version of Santa Claus we recognize today, and devised (or by some accounts just popularized) the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant to represent the two political parties. He was also famous for his cartoons of Abraham Lincoln, so it’s not surprising that certain elements of Lincoln made their way onto his versions of Uncle Sam, who became a little gaunter, a little older, and sprouted facial hair for the first time

6. THE MOST FAMOUS IMAGE OF UNCLE SAM WAS FOR A RECRUITMENT POSTER.

A war often means recruitment drives, and recruitment drives need art to bring in recruits. The most famous conception of Uncle Sam comes from artist James Montgomery Flagg, who created his first version of his iconic image for the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in 1916. The British had great success with a similar design using war hero Lord Kitchener to drive enlistment two years earlier, perhaps inspiring Flagg’s effort. Flagg’s painting graced 4 million posters between 1917 and 1918. He’d used himself as a visual reference for the first version, but when World War II rolled around, he enlisted an Indiana man named Walter Botts, who’d modeled for Norman Rockwell, to pose for an update.

7. THE “UNCLE SAM” NAME HAS BECOME ASSOCIATED WITH OTHER PATRIOTIC FIGURES.

Ulysses Grant circa 1855. Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Before he was the 18th president, or even a Union leader, Ulysses Grant was born with a different first name: Hiram. When he was nominated to attend West Point as a teenager, however, his sponsor somehow copied his name as “Ulysses S. Grant” instead of “Hiram Ulysses Grant.” (Some say the s was a reference to his mother's family name, Simpson.) Once he arrived at the military academy, his classmates decided the “S” must stand for Sam, as in Uncle Sam, and it became his nickname even after graduation.

8. IT’S ALSO LINKED TO SOME COMIC BOOK HEROES.

Remember Samuel Wilson, the possibly original Uncle Sam? That’s also the name of Marvel Comics’ first African-American superhero, the Falcon. However intentional or not that may have been, Marvel’s Sam Wilson is currently Captain America in print. It doesn’t get much more patriotic than that.

9. THE WILSONS ARE STILL KEEPING UP THE FAMILY NAME.

Uncle Sam Memorial Statue, Arlington, Massachusetts. Image:Daderot via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

In July 2015, the genealogy website MyHeritage confirmed that one family in Arkansas is, in fact, directly descended from the famous Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York. Helen Painter told ABC News that MyHeritage wasn’t revealing anything new to them. “My grandmother was the daughter of Carlton Sheldon, who was Marion Wilson’s son, and she was the granddaughter of Samuel,” she said. “Granny always kept us very informed.”

Painter’s eldest son has served in the Navy for more than 20 years, while she is a nurse. She made a point of linking Wilson’s spirit of service to her family’s today. “Whether it’s an icon or the person who did more menial jobs that never got that recognition, there are a lot of wonderful people who have done a lot of wonderful things,” she told ABC News. “Hopefully, we can continue to do great things to take care of each other, whether it’s handing out meat or Band-Aids or handing out a smile or a pat on the back.”

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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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Smart Shopping
This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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VicTsing 300ml Cool Mist Humidifier Ultrasonic Aroma Essential Oil Diffuser for Office Home Bedroom Living Room Study Yoga Spa - Wood Grain for $49.99 (list price $29.99)

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BraceUP Stabilizing Lumbar Lower Back Brace and Support Belt with Dual Adjustable Straps and Breathable Mesh Panels (S/M) for $23.99 (list price $45.98)

Brightdeal Replacement Brush Heads for Philips Sonicare Toothbrush E Series HX7022/66, Essence, Xtreme, Elite and Advance (6-pack) for $19.99 (list price $25.99)

Philips Sonicare Essence Sonic Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush, White for $24.95 (list price $49.99)

Swiffer Duster Refills, Unscented Dusters Refill, 20 count for $13.97 (list price $15.99)

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Johnson's 24 Hr Moisturizing Wash Soft Body Lotion 12 fl oz (6 pack) for $26.99 (list price $29.99)

Germ-X 1000042965 Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer Lotion 4 oz. (Pack of 12) for $38.53 (list price $55.28)

Radha Beauty Natural Therapeutic Frankincense Essential Oil, 4 oz. for $16.95 (list price $49.99)

FHI Brands Stylus Thermal Styling Brush, Black for $79.99 (list price $99.99)

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Campbell Hausfeld 17-Piece Air Tool and Accessory Kit (MP284701AV) for $11.78 (list price $17.07)

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