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News Article  
Collecting a better mousetrap
By Larry LeMasters

Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” And in the late 1800s, inventors tried to follow his advice.

Take for instance, today’s standard mousetrap. While many companies produce mousetraps, most follow the simple pattern first patented by John Mast of Lititz, Pennsylvania, in 1899. Mast’s patent showed a trap, using a heavy spring-steel wire that snapped downward, breaking a mouse’s neck as it nibbled at cheese bait.

Most of us have used such a trap since the common house mouse is considered one of the most troublesome rodents in the United States. An adult mouse weighs about 1 ounce and can perform a vertical jump of 13 inches from the floor onto a flat surface, which explains how they get on everything. Mice can squeeze through 5/16-inch diameter openings. And in a single year, a female mouse may have up to ten litters of mice with five or six mice in each litter. And a young mouse reaches reproductive maturity in just 10 weeks, sometimes sooner.

The earliest recorded history of killing mice began in the mid-1600s, where street vendors in London used the cry, “Buy a fine mousetrap or a tormentor for your flies.” London was full of mice, and, not surprisingly, mousetrap men made a good income selling traps.

Surprisingly, in the last 100 plus years, no one has built a better mousetrap than the one John Mast invented; although, many inventors have tried.

In 1910, James Henry Atkinson, of Leeds, England, patented an improved version of Mast’s trap. Atkinson produced a mousetrap with a strong, spring mounted snap trap on a wooden base. This is the mouse trap that most of us still use today.

John Lienhard, in his article A Better Mousetrap, claims “the Patent Office has issued over 4400 mousetrap patents,” and “today some 400 people still apply for mousetrap patents each year.” That is a staggering amount of patents.

One trap collectors seek is the Electrocuter made by Ratchford Engineered Products. The Electrocuter was an obvious attempt by the company to capture the public’s imagination by using newly acquired electricity. A homeowner would bait the trap, plug the Electrocuter into an outlet, and wait for a mouse to stick its head onto the high voltage terminals. When it did, the mouse was fried. One reason the Electrocuter remained on the market for only a short time is that the mouse continued frying until someone noticed it and unplugged the trap. Hence the old saying, “I smell a rat!” For quite often, a member of the family smelled the burning creature before it was discovered and the plug pulled. Still, Electrocuters make centerpieces in a mousetrap collection.

While electrocution may seem “cruel and unusual punishment” for a mouse, it isn’t the only terrible trap that has been sold. Mousetraps have been patented for drowning, cutting, mashing, and decapitating mice. The Mousetower-trap is an interesting trap that drowned mice. Manufactured around 1910, the trap had a tripping mechanism that closed the door behind a mouse after it had entered. At the top of the trap there is another mechanism that makes the animal slide into a barrel of water and at the same time opens the front door again for another mouse to enter.

Some mousetraps, such as the Royal No. 1, look like miniature bear traps, with ragged rows of teeth designed to kill the unlucky mouse. These types of traps are called “Conibear” traps after their inventor.

Many traps have been specially built to kill mice under very specific circumstances. One example is the “Hanging Trap” that is designed to catch mice that are trying to eat food that is hanging from the ceiling, like cheese, hams, or sausages.

Strangling traps have been around since the 1700s. These traps have one to 10 holes the size of a mouse drilled in a block of wood. Just behind the entrance there is a slit where a noose is held in place by a little string. A mouse, to get at the bait in the back of the trap, must place its head through the noose and bite through the small string. When it does, it is strangled.

Not all traps were engineered to kill mice. Many live traps or cage traps have been patented and marketed. Perhaps the most ingenious live mousetrap, patented in March 1908, used a “flexible resilient band” with a series of bells attached. When a mouse or rat took the bait, the band was tightened around the rodent’s neck, freeing the critter “to return to its colony. The “bell-rat,” as it may be termed, in seeking its colony announces his coming by the sounds emitted by the bells, thereby frightening the other rats and causing them to flee, thus practically exterminating them in a sure and economical manner.”

Over time, the mousetrap market has proven homeowners want a quick and relatively painless way of trapping mice, which is why the snap trap has been the leading mousetrap for well over 100 years. Today, snap traps are advertised as “disposable” so that homeowners can simply throw the trap in the trashcan after catching a mouse, rather than touch the gruesome trap.

But disposable traps should not discourage collectors. Even though no one has built a better mousetrap since John Mast, as long as MIT turns out geniuses, there will always be someone trying to build a better mousetrap. So your future chances of collecting some oddball mousetrap that uses tachyon beams to kill mice may still happen.