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The Mousetrap as Meme

Features - Annual Rodent Control Issue

Pest control’s answer to the light bulb, the zipper and sliced bread.

AL Greene | August 16, 2013

Throughout the history of man, the various technologies devised to remotely capture animals for their flesh, hides and other useful parts have ranked among the most ingenious expressions of human creativity. Born of urgent necessity, most of the major trap categories (e.g., deadfalls, pits, nets and snares) were developed in prehistoric times. Although anthropologists have cataloged hundreds of variants, it is noteworthy that the same basic mechanical themes can be found in different societies all over the world. Some of these examples may indeed represent “parallel evolution” in ancestral thought. Nevertheless, considering the extensive early human migrations that eventually resulted in global colonization, it seems likely that many of the distinctive local expressions of universal engineering principles originally resulted from cultural transmission rather than sprouting from totally autonomous intellectual roots.

A few designs were dependent on the development of modern spring steel before their potential could be fully realized, such as the familiar jaw traps that revolutionized the capture of fur-bearing mammals in the 19th century. And it is a single coiled steel spring that powers what has indisputably become the most popular and recognizable type of animal trap on the planet — the flat, wooden-based, rodent snap trap, and in particular, its small-scaled version as a means for killing mice (see photo above). Not merely emblematic of rational pest control methodology, it has been held up as one of the most perfect machines ever invented. As such, the mousetrap (honored by most English dictionaries by being preferentially written as a single word) has transcended its prosaic, utilitarian function and has been the subject of extensive research and analysis by scholars interested in the mechanisms of cultural evolution and the diffusion of innovations. Along the way, it has even managed to be embroiled in the debate over creationism — not a bad résumé for a simple contraption, weighing less than an ounce of pine, wire and (since 1980) plastic.

One might think that such a signature product would have an easily traced pedigree, but that has not at all been the case. The primary reason for the confusion surrounding its provenance is that the rodent snap trap is an excellent example of a meme, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ memorable term for the cultural equivalent of a gene. The meme concept — in meme-like fashion — has taken on an elaborate life of its own since its introduction in 1976, but still retains its core meaning of a distinctive idea that moves through time, spreading by imitation as it goes, influencing other ideas and events, and changing to adaptively meet new circumstances. As a unit of cultural inheritance, a meme can be virtually anything — a tune, a fashion, a phrase or a design. Nowadays, it is relatively easy to track their birth and progress, but for constructs that arose in the dark ages before the era of intensive electronic documentation, historians often must navigate dense thickets of claims by local adherents who believe that a worthy inspiration spontaneously arose on their turf.

Such is the case with the snap trap. As recently chronicled in painstaking detail by two of the foremost authorities on mousetrap evolution, Joachim Dagg (2011) and Christopher Hogue (2012), both sides of the Atlantic have nearly parallel “origin myths” as to who originally invented the device. The British are prone to give credit to James Henry Atkinson, who patented his 1897 “Little Nipper” conception and subsequently sold the rights to the venerable UK firm of Procter Brothers, whose later incarnation of Procter Pest-Stop eventually captured the largest share of the international mousetrap market. In the United States, the snap trap is deemed to have originated with John Mast, who invented a nearly identical version in 1899 that went on to be marketed under the famous Victor brand (now manufactured by the Woodstream Corporation). Nevertheless, patent records conclusively demonstrate that the first appearance of the now-iconic configuration (in fact, more similar to the modern Victor product than Mast’s design) was an 1894 creation by William Chauncey Hooker, who founded the Animal Trap Company of Abingdon, Ill., to market what was labeled as the “Out O’ Sight” trap in both rat and mouse sizes. (Speaking of memes, that expression had already taken on its slang meaning of “awesome” by that date.) Mast’s firm went on to acquire Hooker’s company and trap patent in 1905, further muddying the waters of the product’s provenance.


Pictured are three 20th century iterations of the Victor wooden-base snap trap for mice, differing mainly in the trigger configuration. On the left is a discontinued version from the 1980s, featuring a flat wood and metal pedal with a circular depression for the bait that closely resembled both William Hooker’s and John Mast’s original designs, as well as many subsequent early models. This example was the last of a series that had the pedals impregnated with peanut oil. In the center is the now-classic “four-way” metal pedal trap, originally patented in 1940. The rolled pedal end for holding the bait was added in the 1950s. On the right is Victor’s first expanded trigger model, introducing molded plastic to the product line, and patented in 1981. The now-familiar “Swiss cheese” variant of the large pedal, with a strawberry scent added to the plastic, was patented in 1989.

 
The striking austerity of construction shared by all three of these snap trap progenitors prompted one imaginative advocate of the “intelligent design” notion to hold up the invention as an example of what he termed an “irreducibly complex” device that could be considered as a metaphor for the creationist viewpoint that biological systems must have originated suddenly as fully formed entities, rather than through the intermediate steps of evolutionary change. This argument has been decisively trounced by mousetrap students, who point out that even Hooker’s brainchild can be readily traced back in time via several lineages of simpler antecedents, one of which ultimately derived from (now extinct) spring-loaded fish hooks in the 1840s. Another began significantly earlier with flat bird traps powered by twisted fibers from ancient Egypt! The “fossil record” of these gradual developments has been preserved for posterity and future study in the archives of various patent offices around the world, as well as both public and private collections of antique and ancient traps.

I enjoy exploring the convoluted origins of both biological and cultural marvels, although in both cases I see the greatest utility in looking forward rather than back. More than anything else, the rodent snap trap is a definitive example of sustainability, in every sense of the word. The smaller version forms the backbone of the General Services Administration IPM program’s first-responder methodology for indoor mouse issues, and will continue to do so until a superior work of genius supplants it. I try to keep an open mind, but it’s not likely to happen any time soon. Observers of history and technology are fond of pointing out the continuing flood of mousetrap innovations since the Patent Office was established in 1836 — nearly 4,600 patents have been registered to date, most to amateur or first-time inventors who apparently can’t resist the meme of the “better mousetrap” challenge. This is more patents than have been awarded for any other type of machine, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (which currently displays an assortment of both modern and old-timey mousetraps in its first floor lobby).

Yet despite the diversity of far more sophisticated products currently available on the market, nothing has come close to dethroning “the king.” The humble snap trap, all of whose birth patents have long since expired, is the epitome of brilliant form flawlessly adapted for an elementary function. It is ultra-cheap, easy to use, extraordinarily effective and humane, and (for the squeamish consumer) non-threatening in appearance. Using a secret, fully automated process, Woodstream still manufactures many millions of them every year, and as reported by Jack Hope (1996), the device’s sales are about twice those of all other American mousetraps combined — including Woodstream’s less popular models and those of 60 other U.S. mousetrap manufacturers. Woodstream now takes pains to note that the trap’s base is made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood from environmentally managed forests.

Perhaps some day all structural pest control tools will be as immaculate. But will they rise to the level of, as Hope puts it, “an essential artifact of our culture” that exists in “near-transcendental perfection”? Probably not.

 

References

  • Dagg, J. L. — 2011. Exploring mouse trap history. Evolution: Education and Outreach 4: 397-414.
  • Drummond, D., C. Brandt, and J. Koch — 2002. William C. Hooker’s Great American Mouse Trap: Its Survival and Successful Development in Lititz, Pennsylvania. North American Trap Collectors Association, Galloway, Ohio. 34 pp.
  • Hogue, C. W. V. — 2012. The mouse trap, redux. BioImplement (blog), posted Oct. 23, 2012. http://bioimplement.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-mouse-trap-redux.html
  • Hope, J. — 1996. A better mousetrap. American Heritage 47(6): 90-97.


Thanks to Mike Goldstein of the Woodstream Corporation for correspondence on the peanut oil-baited trap photo on page 39. This article has been excerpted from a forthcoming book by the author on the theory, history and practice of IPM in buildings. The opinions expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. General Services Administration. Dr. Greene is an entomologist and national IPM coordinator for the GSA’s Public Building Service in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via e-mail at
agreene@giemedia.com.

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