CLOSE
Original image
Library of Congress

Nellie Bly's 72 Day Trip Around the World

Original image
Library of Congress

In 1873, French author Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, the fictional account of a man named Phileas Fogg who took advantage of new nineteenth-century technologies to circumnavigate the globe. It wasn’t sci-fi by any means, since those means of traveling—steam ships, omnibuses, and railroads—did exist at the time, but it took one daring woman to make the made-up journey a reality.

The Pitch

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, under her journalist pseudonym Nellie Bly, had already earned a reputation as the world’s first investigative reporter and a fearless individual. Her previous escapades, including uncovering the plight of female factory workers and checking herself into a mental institution for ten days, had been sensational adventures that introduced a new frontier of hands-on journalism, but her popularity was waning as more reporters began to parrot her style. After reading Verne’s novel, Bly approached her editor at the New York World with an outrageous pitch: If he would allow it, she would make the journey and document her experience for the paper.

John A. Cockerill, managing editor of the World, was intrigued by Bly’s proposal; the business manager, however, was not so easily convinced. A journey of the scale Bly proposed was unprecedented by man or woman, and although Bly insisted that she could undertake it without a chaperone, the male senior staff at the paper were unconvinced of the woman’s ability to succeed, preferring to send a man instead. Bly had her answer at the ready: “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The editors conceded.

Bly planned ahead and packed light—extremely light. Rather than the “dozen trunks” her editors had derisively predicted she would need to carry with her, Bly took along just a single piece of luggage, sixteen inches wide and seven inches high. In a bag easily small enough to comply with today’s airline carry-on regulations, she packed a few changes of underwear, toiletries, writing implements, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a flask, a cup, two caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, needles and thread, and some handkerchiefs. She packed not a single spare dress, wearing only the garment she commissioned from a dressmaker made of “a plain blue broadcloth and a quiet plaid camel’s-hair.” In her only concession to vanity, Bly did carry a single jar of cold cream. She refused to take a revolver, assured of “the world's greeting me as I greeted it.”


Not-So-Smooth Sailing

The World, now fully backing Bly both financially and with a front-page story on the day of her departure, saw her off from Hoboken Pier in New Jersey. From the start, Bly was exact with her timing, marking her departure on the Augusta Victoria at 30 seconds after 9:40 p.m. on November 14, 1889. Ambitiously, she aimed not merely to match Phileas Fogg’s ‘round-the-world record, but to beat it, hoping to be on the road for no more than 75 days and four hours.

Bly’s journey got off to a rough start, as she—a first-time traveler—found herself violently seasick on the transatlantic crossing to London. The sight of food made her nauseated, and her fellow passengers were rather judgmental of the queasy woman proposing to travel around the entire world. In attempting to sleep off her nausea, Bly awoke 22 hours later to a knock on her cabin door; the Captain feared she had died. The long sleep seemed to do the trick, however, and Bly managed the rest of the journey in good health and with good appetite, making fast friends with her shipmates.

Upon arriving at Southampton, Bly was faced with a critical decision. Jules Verne himself had issued an invitation to the reporter to visit him at his home in Amiens, France, but she only had one chance to make the trip without missing her connection in London. She went without sleep for two nights to do so, and was greeted at the station by the author and his wife “with the cordiality of a cherished friend.” Though forced to employ the services of a translator, the two writers had a pleasant visit, during which Bly learned that Verne’s story had been inspired by his reading a newspaper article—a fitting detail to share with a journalist.

A Rival Traveler

Hoping to ride the wave of Bly’s publicity, Cosmopolitan magazine sent a rival reporter to race her, headed in the opposite direction. Elizabeth Bisland left New York the same day as Bly, with only six hours’ notice to prepare. While the public took interest in this second traveler, Bly herself was unaware of Bisland’s competition until her arrival in Hong Kong on Christmas Day, when she was called into the office of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company prior to her departure for Japan. When asked if she was the Nellie Bly having “a race around the world,” she naïvely responded that yes, she was running “a race with Time,” only to be told, “I don’t think that’s her name.” Bisland had passed through Hong Kong three days prior, with a blank check from Cosmopolitan to offer ships bribes in any amount to accommodate her schedule. Bly’s response was assured:

I am not racing with anyone. I would not race. If someone else wants to do the trip in less time, that is their concern. If they take it upon themselves to race against me, it is their lookout that they succeed. I am not racing. I promised to do the trip in seventy-five days, and I will do it; although had I been permitted to make the trip when I first proposed it over a year ago, I should then have done it in sixty days.

Making New Friends

As a single woman traveling alone, Bly attracted considerable male attention, despite her best efforts to deflect it. On the ship from Italy to Egypt, a rumor spread that she was “an eccentric American heiress, traveling about with a hair brush and a bank book,” and she was made an offer of marriage by a man with eyes on her (falsely reported) wealth. On another occasion, she described being called upon by a ship captain whose “smooth, youthful face” and “tall, shapely, slender body” belied her expectation of a grizzled old seaman. Though Jules Verne had winkingly predicted that Bly might find herself a companion along the way, as Phileas Fogg did, she was determined that hers was a voyage to be made alone.

Bly’s journey was populated by a vibrant cast of characters, whose differences both great and small she delighted in reporting. On her first oceanic voyage, she took note of an American girl whom she claimed knew more about politics, art, literature, and music than any man on board, and she chronicled the “pecularities” of a man who took his pulse after every meal, another who counted every step he took each day, and a woman who had not once disrobed since departing from New York, determined that if the ship were to sink, she should be fully dressed. She made the acquaintance of other female travelers, including a pair of Scottish women traveling around the world as well, but over the course of two years—a much more leisurely pace.

While some of Bly’s observations about other races and ethnicities would now be seen as explicitly offensive, she made conscious efforts to respect the cultures she encountered. She made missteps along the way, as when she inadvertently insulted the Italians by offering a coin to a beggar child, but spent most of her time documenting Japanese fashion, Italian cuisine, and Egyptian alligator-hunting.  She was treated to a ride by the finest team of ponies in Hong Kong, but was not too much of a snob to see the appeal of a humble burro named Gladstone “with two beautiful black eyes” at Port Said.

Bly dispatched what brief notes she could to The World by cable, though she was surprised in Brindisi when the Italian-speaking cable operator asked her what country New York was in. Her more detailed, handwritten reports, however, traveled by ship, as slowly as she did. Her editors, forced to string out the story to maintain the public’s interest, began printing reaction pieces from foreign papers and geography lessons on all the countries Bly was visiting. After an 8000-mile journey across the Pacific and two weeks of silence from the woman of the moment, it was a relief to everyone when Bly arrived safely in San Francisco, back on American soil at last.

Home Sweet Home

The World, in a hurry to get their world traveler home again, chartered a one-car train to get her across the country with haste. She was greeted as a conquering heroine along the way, met at all stops by cheering crowds and well-wishers in their Sunday best. A Kansas man invited her to come to the Midwest that they might elect her governor; the mayor of Dodge City himself greeted her on behalf of his citizens; the Chicago Press Club held a breakfast in her honor; and the whole nation reverberated with cries of “Hurrah for Nellie Bly!”

Nellie Bly arrived in Jersey City at 3:51 p.m. on January 25, 1890, only 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds after she had left it. She beat her own itinerary by three days, and Verne’s story by eight. Elizabeth Bisland did not arrive for four and a half days afterward. Bly’s trip was an unqualified success, but on arriving, she professed: “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”

For more insight into Nellie Bly’s around-the-world adventure, her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, is available in the public domain.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
iStock
arrow
technology
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image
iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES