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Before He Became President, Abraham Lincoln Was a Wrestling Champion

Thumb through any history textbook, or watch any Hollywood biopic, and you'll see a pretty consistent version of Abraham Lincoln's story. The solemn, dignified leader who helped free the slaves and guide America through the Civil War is someone almost everyone learns about by the time they're out of grammar school. But before he stepped into the political arena, the man who would eventually become president was a combatant of a different kind: a wrestler on the American frontier.

Standing at an impressive 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with lanky arms perfectly designed to tie his opponents in knots, Lincoln was a renowned grappler known for his peerless strength and keen mind in his teens and early 20s. Remember, though, wrestling in rural 19th century America didn't have the fluid grace of an Olympic contest, and it certainly wasn't the garish morality play of the WWE. No, this style of wrestling was a pure test of strength, with combatants locking horns to prove their dominance in front of an audience mostly made up of drunks, gamblers, soldiers, or some combination of the three. Known as catch-as-catch-can style, this brand of wrestling is best described as "more hand-to-hand combat than sport."

Touting just one loss among his 300 (or so) contests, Lincoln gained a reputation among the New Salem, Illinois, locals as an elite fighter, eventually earning his county's wrestling championship. He knew just how good he was, too. After one victory, Lincoln reportedly looked at the crowd and bellowed what passed for trash talk at the time: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” The challenge would go unanswered.

Lincoln's most memorable contest came against Jack Armstrong, a member of the rough and rugged Clary's Grove Boys. When Armstrong heard stories of Lincoln's famous strength (from Lincoln's boss, no less), he challenged the future president to a match. Crowds gathered. Money was wagered. And when the bout was over, Lincoln again stood tall, as he always seemed to.

Some versions of this story claim that Lincoln challenged each member of Armstrong's gang to individual fights after they attempted to interfere in the match before a clear winner was declared. Armstrong, admitting defeat, reportedly called off his friends and became lifelong friends with Lincoln. While accounts differ on the last moments of the fight, it's clear Lincoln had earned the respect of not only Armstrong, but the neighborhood as a whole.

Biographer William O. Stoddard wrote of the match:

"The episode was full of important consequences to Abraham Lincoln. His courage and prowess had been thoroughly tested and had made a deep impression upon the minds of his rough neighbors. He was in no danger of further challengers from any of them, and Jack Armstrong avowed himself the fast friend of the man who had given him so good a shaking."

To this day, historians can only find one instance where Lincoln was bested during a match. It occurred while he was a part of the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832, when a man named Hank Thompson became the only man to actually throw Lincoln during a bout for his regiment's championship.

While Thompson may have claimed the title, Lincoln's reputation as a feared wrestler—and beloved president—was rewarded in 1992 when he was inducted into the Outstanding American wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He's joined there by three other presidents: George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. None of them, however, quite matched Lincoln's mystique as a trash-talking, grappling frontiersman.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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