CLOSE
Original image

The Bitter Race to Publish America's First Magazine

Original image

Benjamin Franklin is known for being one of history’s most famous polymaths. But despite being a famed statesman and inventor—plus establishing the nation’s first volunteer fire company and subscription library—at heart Franklin considered himself a printer. (As a young man, he even composed an epitaph comparing the "Body of B. Franklin, Printer" to "the Cover of an Old Book" and promising that he would one day "appear once more/In a new & more perfect Edition.") In the 1740s, it was his ambition as a printer that ended up embroiling him in a rivalry with a local competitor to launch America’s first magazine.

Franklin's father, Josiah, originally wanted his bookish son to enter into the clergy, but he couldn't pay for the requisite education. Instead, Franklin ended up apprenticing with his brother James, a printer, in their home city of Boston. Franklin followed in his sibling's footsteps and later became a successful printer in his own right, co-founding a printing shop in Philadelphia in 1728.

Some of the most notable products of Franklin's shop included his newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, which Franklin started publishing in 1732. But by 1740, Franklin had set his sights on another goal: producing the very first monthly magazine in the Thirteen Colonies.

At the time, England had its own monthly news magazine, called The Gentleman’s Magazine. Founded in 1731, it offered readers a curated mix of news, commentary, and literature; today, it’s remembered as the first publication to use the word magazine (derived from the Arabic makazin, or "storehouse") to describe a collection of printed material.

Franklin planned to loosely model his own magazine after The Gentleman’s Magazine. It would be published monthly and would offer an aggregation of stories from colonial newspapers. The printer also had a prospective editor in mind: an attorney and writer named John Webbe, who had published a series of essays on government in the Pennsylvania Gazette several years prior.

Franklin outlined his new business scheme to Webbe, hoping to bring him on board. The plan was to create a 57-page magazine, with an initial print run of 1000 copies. It would cost customers 15 shillings a year, or 15 pence per issue. Franklin would foot the production bills, and Webbe would be responsible for its contents, as well as writing promotions and abstracts. And since Franklin served as Philadelphia's postmaster, he would be in charge of distributing the magazine throughout the colonies. Since Franklin was paying to make the magazine, he proposed receiving 75 percent of proceeds, while Webbe would receive 25. Franklin would also receive three-fourths of the magazine’s royalties for the first 2000 copies; if more copies sold, he and Webbe would split them.

Initially, Webbe accepted Franklin’s offer. But after some consideration, he decided he wanted more money than Franklin was willing to give. So he went behind Franklin's back and pitched the idea to another printer named Andrew Bradford, proposing a larger share of the profits than Franklin had been offering.

Bradford was Webbe's friend—and Franklin's rival. He published Pennsylvania's first newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, and once served as Philadelphia's postmaster; long before, he had also briefly employed Franklin at his print shop. But in later years, the ambitious Franklin launched a competing printing press and newspaper and replaced Bradford as Philadelphia's postmaster. Since then, their relationship had soured.

Bradford had reportedly also considered the idea of founding a magazine, so he jumped at the chance to beat Franklin—with Webbe as his editorial right hand. On October 30, 1740, Bradford printed a prospectus in the Mercury for a new publication called the American Magazine, or a Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies. Bradford promised readers that the publication would include an ambitious mix of political, legal, business, economic, and foreign news, as well as commentary and analysis. Their magazine would also be longer—and cheaper—than Franklin's. It was to be published for March (which meant it would appear in April, since 18th century magazines were always printed the month following their cover dates).

Not one to back down from a challenge, Franklin retaliated with his own magazine advertisement, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette about two weeks later. His publication, he announced, would be called The General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America. In addition to hard news, The General Magazine would include excerpts from new books; opinion essays and poetry; and news of births, marriages, deaths, and promotions. Franklin also lowered his planned price from 15 pence to nine pence, made the magazine longer, and decided to fund it entirely himself (rather than relying on subscriptions) to get it out faster.

The magazine would be ready for January, Franklin promised (which meant it would appear in February). The advertisement also noted that the magazine "would not, indeed, have been published quite so soon, were it not that a Person, to whom the Scheme was communicated in Confidence, has thought to advertise it in the last Mercury, without our Participation; and, probably, with a view, by Starting before us, to discourage us from prosecuting our first Design, and reap the Advantage of it wholly to himself." (On "a Person," Franklin included the footnote "John Webbe.")

Webbe responded with a series of newspaper articles in the Mercury attacking Franklin, accusing him of "the most mischievous Kind of Lying" and of having "the Slyness of a Pickpocket." According to Webbe, the project was never supposed to be secret and he hadn’t really committed himself to it, anyway. Franklin did not immediately reply, merely reprinting his advertisement, but some scholars think one of the proverbs printed around this time in Poor Richard’s Almanack may have been related to the betrayal: "If you would keep your Secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend."

Meanwhile, two magazine deadlines loomed. Bradford wanted to scoop Franklin, so he moved up the American Magazine’s publication date. Both magazines ended up running in February 1741, but Bradford’s publication ultimately got there first: The American Magazine was published on February 13, 1741, three days before Franklin's.

The intense rivalry among Franklin, Bradford, and Webbe had started with a bang, but ended with a whimper: Bradford’s American Magazine folded after three issues, and Franklin’s General Magazine lasted only six issues. But while Bradford and Webbe may have gotten there first, their names are now just footnotes in history—while Franklin's brilliant reputation, as a printer and far more, lives on.

Additional Source: The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 2: Printer and Publisher, 1730-1747, J.A. Leo Lemay

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES