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Le Karnice, the Victorian Coffin Designed to Save Lives

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The Medical and Surgical Monitor via Google Books // Public Domain


In 1897, doctors, reporters, and diplomats attending a conference at the Sorbonne marveled over a novel contraption presented to them: a coffin designed to alleviate anxieties over premature burial. Taphephobia (fear of being buried alive) was particularly widespread in Victorian-era Europe and the United States, growing as newspapers published horrific accounts of unnecessary interments. People were terrified that doctors were unable to differentiate between death and profound lethargy, comas, or trances, which could strip patients of perceivable signs of life. The new safety coffin, patented the previous year by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to Russia’s Nicholas II, arrived as the seemingly perfect means to compensate for such potentially lethal misdiagnoses.

Known as Le Karnice, the mechanical apparatus equipped any poor soul lying slowly suffocating in a box underground with tools to survive and signal for help—even if still in a trance. On ground level atop the grave sat a spring-loaded iron container, connected to the coffin’s interior by an iron tube. From the tube’s lower end, a glass ball dangled over the interred’s chest, so any slight bodily movement that disturbed it would release the spring. Like a jack-in-the box, the container would then pop open, welcoming air and light into the coffin. To attract anyone in the cemetery, the box even housed a bell that would chime loudly, and a flag attached to its lid that would shoot up 4 feet tall. Some reports add that the box also had an electric lamp that would burn to provide light after sunset. And if none of those tricks sufficed, anyone buried alive (assuming they were fully awake) could shout for help through the tube.

The count, according to his publicist Horace Valbel, had become so obsessed with preventing premature burial that he had received the tsar’s permission to take leave from his duties as chamberlain to find a solution. (The duties associated with Russian court titles can be unclear, but sources seem to indicate that a chamberlain was a position akin to a chief of staff. They were often counts.) Karnice-Karnicki had apparently witnessed a young Belgian girl nearly buried alive, who had been awakened just in time by the thud of earth shoveled onto her coffin. Unable to forget her screams, he shut himself up for four years in a castle, tinkering away.


Le Karnice, though far from the world’s first safety coffin, was an instant hit. The French Society of Hygiene, which organized the conference, unanimously named Karnice-Karnicki an associate member for his contraption. The esteemed French physiologist Charles Richet, after examining it, exclaimed, “The problem is solved; lethargy is vanquished!” Within a few years, thousands of French citizens had requested in their wills that they be buried in Le Karnice, as William Tebb writes in the 1905 edition of his book Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented. Tebb, who founded The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896, also endorsed Le Karnice, noting that with a price tag of only 12 shillings (about $300 today relative to average UK earnings), its promise of security was “exceedingly reasonable.”

What made the design particularly appealing was its marketability: easily transportable, the apparatus on the top was designed for reuse, so its cost would remain low and it would be accessible to people of all financial means—it was, ultimately, supposed to be a humanitarian invention. Since it involved no complicated machinery, the average cemetery worker would also be able to construct it. The coffin also eliminated the drawbacks of waiting mortuaries, where people lay in communal rooms until they were determined to be truly deceased. Since it was also hermetic, Le Karnice prevented putrid gases from rising to the living world in the event of actual decomposition.

The count traveled through Europe to showcase Le Karnice, as Jan Bondeson describes in Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. One demonstration, however, went awry, with an assistant unable to trigger the flag and the bell. He eventually escaped after some anxious digging by Karnice-Karnicki, but the press was unforgiving, and Le Karnice’s reputation was forever tainted. Medical experts, too, started expressing reservations. At a meeting at the Académie de Médecine in Paris, the hygienist M.E. Vallin argued that the coffin was too sensitive: abdominal swelling during putrefaction—often a definitive indicator of death—could set it off. His detailed case for its impracticality led the Académie to forgo its proposal that municipalities each buy one for lease to a potential corpse at one franc a day.

Undeterred, the count in 1899 sent his representative Emil Camis to New York, where the Parisian presented the coffin to the Medico-Legal Society. He described to his audience a dark world in dire need of such a device, sparing no drama:

"According to the declarations made by grave-diggers of the great cities of all countries, when, at the end of five years, the dead are removed from the common grave, they find in the coffins convulsed skeletons, with fists clenched, twisted and raised to the jaws! In every part of the world, there is not a community of any importance, town or village, where some memory is not preserved of people buried alive, and this memory remains like a permanent terror through all time!"

Camis won over the Society. Members praised the coffin’s simplicity and economy, and word of it quickly spread. Minneapolis monthly The Medical Dial reported on its success; doctors in Detroit said they “urgently recommend the introduction of that life-saving device.”

Back in New York, Camis displayed the coffin for a number of years in a showroom at 835 Broadway near Union Square, and he made known his eagerness to test-trial it to convince any skeptics. A resolute salesman literally loyal until death to his product, he was even willing to volunteer to undergo repeated burial to prove its purpose.

“He thinks that in time the Karnice method will be made a part of the knowledge of every undertaker, who will carry his apparatus in stock,” a March 1901 Telephone Magazine article notes. “The whole outfit would cost hardly more than $40, and M. Camis thinks there will be no difficulty in putting the article on the market.”

For all Camis’s efforts, though, Le Karnice never did take off in America, nor in Europe. Besides unquelled fears that it might fail to function, its reported hypersensitivity introduced strong concern over false alarms—and unnecessary exhumations of decomposing corpses were nearly as undesirable a vision as being buried alive.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]