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10 Relics From the Horse-Powered City Hiding in Plain Sight

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Library of Congress

The commerce and transportation of modern cities initially relied on the horse. While there are still places where they serve a vital role, on the whole the horse has disappeared from the urban environment as cars, trains, subways, and other hoofless transportation took over in the 20th century. Look closely enough, though, and you can still find reminders of this equine past in our infrastructure.

1. STABLES

Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC by 2.0

A city powered by horses needs shelters for them to rest and sleep. Stables and carriage houses thus once lined the streets, their arched doorways still recognizable even when converted into homes and businesses. Mews all over London still have rows of stables, often dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, which are almost entirely now housing. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in just New York City, there were around 4500 stables by the beginning of the 20th century.

Artists were sometimes the first to take over stables after the horses had gone, appreciating their roomy floorplans. MacDougal Alley in Manhattan, for example, changed over from horses to sculptor and painter residents in the Gilded Age. Elsewhere, sculptures of horse heads still crane their necks from former stable façades, such as on 19th century stables in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the 1906 stable for Schlitz brewery in Chicago. 

2. HORSE WALK

Some carriage houses incorporated "horse walks": interior passageways that allowed a horse to walk from the street to a stable. Dense urban areas like New York City still have evidence of these discrete entrances, such as at 7 Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, constructed in 1831, and 336 West 12th Street in the West Village, from the 1850s. Often they just appear as a door alongside the main entrance to the home, wide and tall enough for a horse to slip through.

3. EQUESTRIAN STAIRCASES

Riders' Staircase, Old Royal Palace, Prague. Image credit:Richard Mortel via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Equestrian staircases are most often found in old European cities, built into or alongside castles and other complexes as sloping steps for horses to access upper floors. A 16th century example in Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, for instance, has a "rider's staircase" so knights didn't have to dismount to enter. In Bologna, the town hall contains a huge staircase designed by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante to accommodate carriages.

4. TROUGHS

Horses have to drink, but urban settings rarely have convenient streams with clean water. Organizations concerned with animal welfare—like the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, formed in 1859 in London—spearheaded the construction of troughs with freely available water. Henry Bergh with the ASPCA was particularly involved with installing troughs with fresh water around New York City, and a few are still visible, including a low granite one by the carriage horses that still give tourists rides in Central Park. The trough in Grand Army Plaza is one of the many funded by local Edith Bowdoin, and was rededicated in 2001 at its current site. The troughs weren’t the ASPCA’s only initiative for Manhattan steeds, however: They also offered free showers on the streets and gave out eye-shading straw hats for horses with specially designed ear holes. 

5. FOUNTAINS

Like troughs, horse fountains offered water for city stallions, but fountains were often incredibly elaborate. One with a clock and Shakespeare quotes from the 1880s can still be seen in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The 1919 Gumbel Memorial Fountain in New Orleans is adorned with a dramatic sculpture by Isidore Konti, and the Temperance Fountain in Washington, D.C. has water flowing from the mouths of dolphins, the overflow of which was collected for horse drinking. As that one’s name suggests, many of these doubled as temperance fountains, built to encourage humans to drink water instead of beer. Others were simply donated by animal-loving philanthropists, like advertising agent John Hooper, who died in 1889 and left $10,000 for two fountains "whereat man and beast can drink." The 1894 Hooper Fountain in Manhattan has a monumental column topped with a lantern, with a broad basin below fit for horse muzzles. 

6. AUCTION HOUSES

Horses did not come into the cities through spontaneous generation. Auction houses were a common sight for the horse trade, with large entryways similar in structure to private stables. The grand Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan, for instance, was erected in 1896 as the American Horse Exchange. Artists later converted these as well, including the Beaux-Arts 1904 Van Tassel and Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 126-128 East 13th Street in New York City. After it ceased sales in the 1920s, it was a candy factory and school before artist Frank Stella purchased it in 1978. He moved out in 2005, and it’s now a dance center.

7. HORSE BLOCKS 

Jochen Wolters, Flickr // CC by 2.0

To give carriage passengers and horseback riders a boost, mounting blocks were installed in locations of regular use. Basically just a block of stone or a tiny staircase, a few are still preserved in the sidewalks. London’s Waterloo Place has one from 1830, which, according to its plaque, was placed “by the desire of the Duke of Wellington” (see above). Another of these upping stones is inscribed with the initials "WW" in Camden, New Jersey, just outside the house of none other than poet Walt Whitman.

8. HITCHING POSTS 

Phil Roeder, Flickr // CC by 2.0

Hitching posts weren’t just a Western fantasy for cowboys in saloons—all cities with horses needed convenient tethering points to keep the animals from straying. Often just a pole with a ring, others were more elaborate, like the horse-shaped ones in Brooklyn’s 19th century Green-Wood Cemetery, and in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. You can even find a combo version in Homer, New York, that’s both a hitching post and a mounting step.

9. TETHERING RINGS

iStock

More integrated into the infrastructure than hitching posts but basically serving the same purpose, tethering rings are discreet metal loops embedded in walls, sidewalks, and curbs. They are sometimes ornate, like the one shaped like a dragon in Florence, Italy, that doubles as a sconce (above), but on the whole they are plain. Now mostly obsolete, some have found an unusual afterlife in Portland, Oregon, where they host ephemeral art installations, including tiny horses

10. HORSECAR TRACKS 

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Before there were trolleys and then buses, aboveground transportation often involved the horsecar. Omnibuses were pulled by horses on rails, and these tracks would often transition over to be used by electric cars. The horsecar tracks in Portland, Oregon changed over to electricity in the late 1800s, while the former horsecar tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina were turned electric and began operation in 1891. During the turn of the last century, horses and trolleys would sometimes be riding side-by-side. A photographer in Manhattan caught one of the last horsecars riding the rails in 1917, while the electric trolley raced alongside, and presumably overtook, the fading fixture of transportation.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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