Mousetraps: A Symbol of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit

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The "Little Nipper," a prototype for the standard spring-loaded snapping device you might immediately think of when asked to imagine a mousetrap, was invented by James Henry Atkinson in 1897. It's simple: flat wooden base, wire fastenings, spring trap. And, like the paperclip or the thumbtack, the simplest design is often the best, often the one that sticks. The "Nipper" slams shut in 38/1000ths of a second, which means you could set off a string of ten traps, lined up like dominos, in the time it takes you to blink once. That record still stands and Atkinson's device has reportedly captured about 60 percent of the international mousetrap market.

Atkinson sold the patent to Procter, the company that still manufactures the "Little Nipper," in 1913 for £1,000. He continued to work on traps while Procter made a mint off of his design and eventually erected a 150-exhibit mousetrap museum in Procter's factory headquarters.

Around the same time -- some say two years before and some say two years after (the patent wasn't awarded, though, until 1903) -- John Mast of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, patented a similar design that he released here in United States. But in a case that's reminiscent of the great telephone controversy between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, Mast's design was incredibly similar to that of Atkinson. Mast, too, sold off his patent. Oneida Community Ltd., known for its silverware, purchased Mast's design in 1907 and unloaded it years later to Woodstream Corp. Today, Woodstream still manufactures between 10 million and 30 million mousetraps based on Mast's design every year.

The two most successful mousetraps are incredibly similar devices. So what does building a better mousetrap mean, anyway? Does it snap shut faster? Is it assembled more quickly or use cheaper raw materials? Probably not: In 1900, the snap trap design sold for about five cents and, more than 60 years later, it was still available at retail for seven cents. Austin Kness had a different idea altogether. The Kness Catch-All Multiple Catch mousetrap, released in the 1920s, doesn't use bait at all; it was the first humane mousetrap. It went on to be a huge success.

Over the years, many other types of mousetraps have been designed, patented and sold, including the mouth mousetrap, which consists of a plastic set of jaws that snap shut on the rodent; the electric mousetrap, made up of a circuit that, when completed, zaps the catch with a lethal dose of electricity; and glue traps, which trap the rodent to either natural or synthetic adhesive until it dies of starvation, exhaustion or worse. Many mice and other small animals caught by glue traps end up gnawing off limbs or tearing skin in an attempt to escape. They've also been known to suffocate after getting their faces stuck to the cardboard or plastic that makes up the bulk of the trap.

There are bucket traps, which can be either lethal or non-lethal. Most contain liquid -- soap, water or poisonous chemicals, depending on the manufacturer -- meant to drown the mouse after it falls down a ramp. There's even a trap, invented by Rentokil Pest Control, that uses carbon dioxide to kill trapped mice and then sends an email to the owner/operator so he or she can empty it.

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Out of the 4,400 mousetraps issued by the Patent Office, only about two dozen of those have made their creators any money on the U.S. market. But each of those 24 or so improvements or variations on the original spring trap design comes with an amazing. story. The Kness Catch-All? It was designed by a janitor at an Iowa school who noticed that mice were multiplying in the building, according to an article on the history of mousetraps written for Today, Kness Manufacturing, founded in Albia, Iowa, several generations ago, sells the Catch-All in 14 different countries.

The corporation continues to exist alongside the American entrepreneur. "By the time your mousetrap makes it to store shelves, it is likely to have been fine-tuned and compromised beyond recognition," Adler wrote in Wired. But at least, then, your mousetrap has made it to the shelves. You've built a better mousetrap, which has, since the 19th century, come to mean that you have achieved an ideal.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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