Once I brought my zapper home, I spent some quality time happily waving my new magic wand at every flying insect. I was a convert. I wondered about the effectiveness. Could they replace the weekly insecticide sprayings that I had come to dread in my neighborhood?
The idea of electrocuting insects goes back more than a century. In 1911, Popular Mechanics ran an article about an “electric death trap” for killing flies. The device, a squat cage whose wires carried a current of 450 volts, had a bit of meat placed inside as bait. The magazine judged the bulky contraption “too expensive ever to come into more than very limited use.”
This “electric death trap” was a far cry from today’s portable zappers, passing judgment like Zeus with his thunderbolt (a popular design on zappers, it happens). The contemporary bug zapper was invented in 1959, when Thomas Laine envisioned a device that would kill insects on contact, rather than by being “crushed or otherwise mutilated in a messy manner.” This electrified flyswatter would have “a voltage sufficiently great to kill a fly having parts in contact” with its screens.
But Laine’s bug zapper seems to have been a false start. It looked a lot like today’s zappers, but it’s unclear if it ever came to market. Instead, a Taiwanese inventor, Tsao-I Shih, is often credited with inventing the modern bug zapper, an “electronic insect-killing swatter,” in 1996.
While most zappers resemble tennis rackets, they probably owe just as much of their design to the fly swatter. Robert Montgomery, who patented that device in 1900, was the first to come up with using wire netting to give it a “whiplike swing.” It was far more aerodynamic than newspapers or whatever crude implement happened to be at hand to bat at insects. And later, perfect for electrifying.
The golden age of bug-zapper innovation arrived in the mid-aughts. A slew of inventors filed patents for devices with slight variations: adding lights, or flexible, shock absorbent handles. One racket even boasted a bait tray, which according to its inventor was especially useful: When “dead insects fall into the tray, they are now bait for their carnivorous buddies.”
It was also around this time that bug zappers seemed to take off commercially. And in the decade or so since, bug zapping rackets have become ubiquitous—at least in the tropics. They are marketed as “chemical-free” and environmentally friendly, fun, and cheap.
* * *
Do these gadgets work? It depends on what a bug zapper is expected to do.
When a zapper comes into a contact with a fly, mosquito, or other insect, it delivers an almost certain death. Smaller insects appear to be vaporized by the rackets, vanishing without a trace. For me, that’s made the bug zapper a useful aid to domestic sanity. At night, mosquitoes would drive me half-mad buzzing around my head. Ending the nocturnal torture meant getting out of bed and turning on the lights. Then, with sleep-blurred senses, I would fruitlessly try to nab the insect mid-air. When that failed, I would have to grab a swatter and wait for the mosquito to land. With a zapper, I can lie in the darkness, barely waking up, and just wait for unsuspecting mosquitoes to blunder into it.