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One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty

James Edgar, the Pioneering Department Store Santa

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One of Edgar's many successors, via Getty

Edward Pearson was in his 90s when he told a newspaper reporter about the most magical day of his childhood.

“As long as I live,” he said, “and I’ve lived quite a few years, I’ll never forget that experience.”

It was December 1890, and a young Pearson was wandering the aisles of the Boston Store, an upscale department store in Brockton, Massachusetts, when he turned a corner and saw a portly man with a white beard and a red suit.

“All of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.” The man smiled and approached Pearson. Like most kids, Pearson had only seen interpretations of Santa in magazine illustrations, never in the flesh. But here, in a department store in a small town near Boston, was the man himself.

In reality, Santa was James Edgar, the owner of the Boston Store and a man who bore a resemblance to the holiday icon long before he ever asked a tailor to fashion a costume for him. For the hundreds of kids who visited his store, Edgar became something their eyes could hardly believe: the first department store Santa.

Edgar was born in Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland in 1843, arriving in the United States some 24 years later [PDF]. A big, jolly man who carried his generosity with him everywhere, Edgar opened the Boston Store—later renamed Edgar’s—in 1878 and promptly began to personify the holiday spirit.

While other area stores often had their workers staying late, Edgar closed his store four evenings a week so workers could be home with their families. If a customer wanted to put an item on layaway, he gave them four percent monthly interest on whatever amount they had deposited. If a child in the area was in need of medical attention and had no money, Edgar would make sure they got the help they needed. While he did it anonymously, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind it.

With one daughter of his own, Edgar loved kids. He hired trolleys to ferry thousands of them into a nearby grove for a Fourth of July picnic every year, where he enjoyed dressing up in costume for their amusement. He was Uncle Sam one year and a cricket player the next. He’d climb to the roof of his store and toss pennies into the crowd below.

For Christmas, Edgar originally donned a clown costume to spread cheer inside his store. He did this for years until, in 1890, the idea struck him to try his hand at portraying Santa, using the Thomas Nast illustrations of the character from 1860s issues of Harper’s magazine as inspiration. Edgar made his way into Boston, hired a tailor, and picked up his Santa suit.

“I have never been able to understand why the great gentleman lives at the North Pole,” he once said of his ambitions. “He is so far away. He is only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”

To say children were awestruck would not be an exaggeration. Like Pearson, they had never conceived of meeting their mysterious benefactor face-to-face before. Lines began to spiral out of the store and around the block, surging when school was let out. Edgar had planned on being Santa for just an hour a day and three on Saturdays, but he eventually had to hire a second man to play Santa when the demand outstripped his energy.

The notion of a living Santa was so intriguing that Edgar’s store attracted visitors from as far away as New York and Rhode Island. By the following year, several other stores across the country had picked up on the idea, which helped bolster foot traffic and sales. Unlike many of his successors, however, Edgar never had a place to sit and idle. He roamed his store, actively seeking out children so they could confide in him.

By the time Edgar died in September 1909, the department store Santa had become a tradition. The owners of his namesake property also seemed determined to continue his philanthropy, devoting an entire floor to cobbling shoes for the poor during the 1920s.

Edgar was not the first man to put on a Santa costume: because of the character's many incarnations—from 4th century bishop to Coca-Cola advertising icon—that will forever be an issue of semantics. But he was the first documented department store Santa, and he arguably was the man who most closely resembled the character in terms of the good will he circulated. When he died, his funeral service was held in his second-floor apartment in Brockton. As soon as local schools let out for lunch, hundreds of children filed past his casket to pay their respects.

Additional Sources
“Original Department Store Santa,” The Billings Gazette, December 1972 [PDF]; “Department Store Santas Owe Paychecks to Col. Jim Edgar,” Enterprise, Dec. 20, 1987 [PDF]; “The First Santa Claus,” Yankee, 1979 [PDF].

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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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May 23, 2017
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