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A Better Mousetrap
In a nation of inventors it has always been the single most invented thing. At this very moment hundreds of Americans are busy obeying Emerson’s famous dictum—even though the machine he exhorted them to build has existed in near-transcendental perfection for almost a century.
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
Into this vacuum came two straightforward and solid mousetraps: the “choker” (available in one-hole, two-hole, four-hole, and six-hole versions) and the “snap trap.” The choker, a derivative of earlier beheaders, lured the mouse into poking its head into a small, round hole, whereupon a spring-powered wire noose closed upon its neck. This was a wonderfully simple and effective machine and is still manufactured and sold in limited numbers today by, among others, the Woodstream Corporation.
But from the moment it appeared on the market in 1899, the John Mast snap trap was a tour de force in American mousetrapping. If a mouse but poked at the delicate bait pedal, the striker descended powerfully and quickly—indeed, in three milliseconds. Unlike enclosure traps that placed the moral decision of mouse drowning versus mouse releasing upon the shoulders of the consumer, the snaptrapped mouse was already dead when the householder arrived on the scene. And with its few moving parts stapled inexpensively atop a slim rectangle of pine, the snap trap was far easier to build than the choker and, at five cents apiece (in 1900), sold for one-fourth the price.
Mast’s mousetrap was emblematic of American enterprise. Before he began making it, he manufactured the curious combination of coleslaw, wooden fishing lures, and popcorn in his three-story brick factory in Lititz. In such an establishment mice were ever present, and in the best tradition of self-help John Mast did something about it. He studied existing mousetrap patents, borrowed extensively from five or six of them, and in October 1899 filed his own patent application. He then aggressively proceeded to manufacture and market the snap trap, which not only solved his own problems but answered the mouse-trapping dreams of American householders, even before his U.S. patent was officially granted in 1903.
It is unclear why the earlier patented snap traps of inventors such as C. B. Trumble (No. 481,707, in 1892) and N. R. Streeter and J. Anstice (No. 595,741, in 1897) did not beat Mast’s to the marketplace. But what Mast had going for him that most amateur inventors did not was an already existing factory and a crude kind of assembly line with workers who could readily be taken away from cabbage shredding and put into wire bending.
And so mousetrap invention proceeded undiminished into the twentieth century. Enchanted with the recently harnessed force of electricity, a dozen or more inventors quickly adapted it to their purposes. In 1911 A. A. Low, from Horseshoe, New York, and others collaborated to create Electrocuting Trap (Patent No. 1,001,400), which despite its unpretentious name turned out to be the most complex household mousetrap ever built.
No. 1,001,400 was a repeat killer, battery-powered, built in the form of a two-story house, twelve inches square and fourteen inches high, with three 17-step stairways by which victims were led up to the roof. There, reaching for the routine cube of cheese, bread, or meat, the mice were electrocuted one after another between two contacts and then dropped through a trap door into a water-filled zinclined container on the first floor.
The need for the spacious houselike construction was to enclose not only the dead mouse container but several feet of electrical wire, a six-volt battery, a host of coils, electrodes, mercury switches, and electromagnets and, in the detailed genius of the trap, an electrified register to tell the householder at a glance just how many dead he had within the little house at any given moment.
The easygoing U.S. Patent Office does not require that a device be practical, merely that it will do what the inventor claims.
It stretches credibility to suppose that the inventors A. A. Low and partners believed their Electrocuting Trap would ever sell. Even in 1911 the man-hours and material required to build such an excessive device would have been expensive. Far more likely, each time the high-spirited and electrically sophisticated inventors convened to perfect their creation they could not refrain from adding just one more circuit breaker, one more set of electrodes. No manufacturer ever bought the patent rights to Electrocuting Trap.