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Whiz Kids: 5 Amazing Young Inventors

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Here are the stories of four young inventors who have already made their mark on the world, and one who hopes to in the years to come.

1. Chester Greenwood: Easy on the Ears

All 15-year old Chester Greenwood wanted to do was ice skate. But the bitter cold of winter in Farmington, Maine, was hard on his exposed ears. He tried covering them with gloved hands, but that made it difficult to skate. He tried wrapping a wool scarf around his head, but his ears were so sensitive to the fabric that it made him itch.


Searching for a solution, Greenwood shaped two pieces of wire into circles to cover his ears, then connected them with a longer wire to form a headband. His grandmother sewed velvet to the inside and beaver fur to the outside of the circles, to block out the winter air. His lightweight, hands-free, itch-free ear protectors became an instant hit with the other kids, who begged him to make more.

Greenwood got a patent for his “ear-mufflers” three years later in 1877, when he was just 18. By 1883, his Farmington factory produced 30,000 earmuffs a year, climbing to 400,000 by his death in 1937.

Today, earmuffs are so commonplace, it’s virtually impossible to say how many pairs are sold every year.

Greenwood became famous for earmuffs, but he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He received numerous patents during his lifetime, including one for the metal rake we still use to collect fallen leaves every autumn. But nowhere was he as much-loved as his native Maine. To show their appreciation, in 1977, the state declared December 21st “Chester Greenwood Day,” and Farmington held its first earmuff parade, which became an annual event.

2. Louis Braille: Blind Visionary

Blind since he was three, Louis Braille received a scholarship to attend France's Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children), the first-ever specialized school for the blind, when he was 10. At the time, the Institute taught its students to read by touch, tracing embossed letters on the pages of specially-made books. The letters were large so the student could differentiate them, but that also meant the books were much bigger than usual to accommodate the larger typeface. The books were very expensive to make and often became unwieldy to read, with some weighing as much as 100 pounds. As such, when Braille started school, the Institute had around 100 students, but only 14 books.

In 1821, a French soldier visited the school to introduce “sonography,” a code language read by fingertip so that soldiers could communicate at night without light or making noise. The code was made of cells that could hold 12 tiny, raised dots split into two rows of six, with the number and arrangement of dots in each cell corresponding to a particular phonetic sound. With its smaller typeface, sonography would allow the Institute to reduce the size of its books, but would also give blind students the opportunity to write for the first time with a special grid guide and embossing stylus.

After using sonography for a few years, 15-year old Braille had some ideas to make it better. The main problem was that it required multiple fingers to read because there were so many possible positions for the twelve dots to occupy. So he streamlined the code by using six dots to symbolize only letters and basic punctuation, leaving out complex phonetic sounds entirely. Students learned and read Braille's system much faster than sonography, so it quickly became the standard language at the school, and later, for blind people all over the world.

3. Philo Farnsworth: TV Star

For most farm boys, plowing the family field only inspires boredom. But for 14-year-old electronics prodigy Philo Farnsworth, going up-and-down the rows gave him the idea to project a recorded image by scanning electrons back-and-forth across a glass screen. When he consulted his high school chemistry teacher about the idea, it was so complex he had to draw a diagram on the blackboard, which the teacher promptly copied down to study later. Encouraged by his bewildered mentor, Farnsworth pursued his concept and, in 1927, at the age of 21, he developed and patented the world's first working fully-electronic television.

But like many inventions, there were other people developing related ideas at the same time. One such man, Vladimir Zworykin, had filed a patent for a similar concept in 1923, but couldn’t make it actually work. So Zworykin continued to tweak the design, resubmitting the same patent application again and again, until it was finally approved in 1933. However, due to a technicality, the original filing date read 1923, making his patent four years older than Farnsworth's.

By the time his patent was approved, Zworykin was working for Radio Corporation of America (RCA), who planned to produce televisions using his design. Believing that his 1927 patent trumped the revised 1933 patent, Farnsworth sued for royalties. Of course RCA used the technicality to claim their employee had the patent before Farnsworth, so they refused to pay him a dime.

Farnsworth had an ace up his sleeve – his chemistry teacher. The teacher testified in court and even produced the original sketch of 14-year old Farnsworth's blackboard diagram, proving he had been working on the invention well before Zworykin had even applied for his patent.

Farnsworth received a few royalty payments from RCA during television's infancy, but as America entered World War II, the government suspended production of television sets. Shortly after the ban was lifted, Farnsworth's patent expired, allowing RCA to make televisions royalty-free. This meant that, as television sales exploded in the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth missed out on the most lucrative years of his own invention.

4. Margaret Knight: Bag Lady

As a young girl, Margaret “Mattie” Knight never played with dolls, preferring to make toys for her brothers instead. In 1849, Knight went to work in a cotton mill where she witnessed a "shuttle," a device that carries thread back and forth across a textile loom, fly off the machine when the thread broke, striking and killing a young boy about her own age.

The 12-year old Knight developed a safety mechanism that made it impossible for a shuttle to leave the loom. The design was so effective, soon virtually every new power loom carried her invention, saving countless workers from injury or death. Being so young, she didn’t bother to patent the device, so she never received royalties.


Knight wouldn't make the same mistake later in life when she invented a machine that could produce flat-bottomed paper bags. Knight had built a miniature wooden prototype in her home, but she needed a metal version to show it could hold up to the rigors of mass production. So she hired Charles Annan to make the full-sized machine for her, only to have him try to claim the patent for himself. When Knight sued, Annan's argument was that the design had to be his, because no woman could possibly understand the complex mechanics involved. Knight proved him wrong when she brought her wooden prototype to court and explained how every gear and lever worked. She won the case in 1871, making her the second woman to hold an American patent (the first was Mary Dixon Kies in 1809). Over a hundred years later, her design is still used as the basis for many modern flat-bottom bag machines.

But that wasn’t the last the world heard of Mattie Knight, “the female Edison.” During her lifetime, she was credited with about 90 inventions and received 26 patents on everything from a rotary engine to a waterproof protector for women’s skirts, becoming one of the most prolific female inventors of the 19th century.

5. Param Jaggi: One to Grow On

Even today, young inventors are working to make the world a better place. If Param Jaggi's invention, the Algae Mobile, continues on its current trajectory, it could very well become as familiar as Farnsworth's television or Greenwood's earmuffs.

Inspiration struck in 2008 when 15-year old Jaggi sat at a stop sign behind the wheel of a driver's ed car in Plano, Texas. Watching the exhaust from the car in front of him bellow up into the air, he got the idea for a small device that plugs into a muffler and can remove about 89% of the carbon dioxide from a car's exhaust. The secret: a live colony of algae that takes in the CO2 from the exhaust, uses it for photosynthesis, and then releases oxygen back into the air.

Jaggi applied for a patent in 2009 and has been continuously improving his design ever since. Over the years he's received awards at numerous competitions, including one in May 2011, when the Environmental Protection Agency recognized his sustainable design at the Intel International Science Fair, beating out 1,500 other applicants. With that kind of validation, and with a cost of only about $30 per unit, there's a good chance you'll one day have an Algae Mobile on your car. And then we'll all be able to breathe just a little bit easier.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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