1923 Seventy -five Years Ago

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In November, at the prompting of the famous inventor Thomas A. Edison, the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service considered using poison gas—the deadly scourge of the recently concluded World War—for a much more humane purpose: easing the suffering of trapped animals. A New York City banker and animal lover had asked Edison if it would be possible to dispatch creatures caught in steel traps with a quick jolt of electricity. The Wizard of Menlo Park replied: “I do not think it commercially practicable to combine electricity with a trap. … It would be more practicable to have the movement of the trap break a container filled with deathdealing war gas. This would be easy and practicable as well as inexpensive.”

The banker relayed Edison’s suggestion to War Department officials, who seemed enthusiastic, noting that such a trap would be easy to build and could even use the “regulation service toxic candle” to deliver the coup de grâce . Fortunately the idea was soon dropped, sparing America the sight of Billy Bob stopping by the hardware store to pick up a gallon of phosgene. The scheme had an eerie parallel after World War II, however, when civil engineers experimented with using small-scale nuclear explosions to create excavations for harbors and dams.