Building a Better Mousetrap

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.

Mice have had a remarkable career as pests. In fact, they are so successful that, throughout history, people have put an awful lot of effort into keeping them out of their homes, food stores, and businesses. That’s tough, though— mice can flatten out their bodies and slide through cracks as thin as ⅜ of an inch, meaning that if a pencil can roll under a door, so can a mouse.

Cats and some dogs make good mousetraps, but to some people, having cats and dogs is almost as bad as infestation by mice. So it’s not surprising that thousands of mouse-catching contraptions have been invented over the years. What is surprising, though, is that, for hundreds of years, most didn’t work very well. They were too complicated, too bulky, and too easy for the rodents to escape from.

HOOKER TRAP

That all changed in 1894 when a brand-new mousetrap came out of Abington, Illinois, patented by a man named William Chauncey Hooker. The design was simple, effective, cheap to manufacture, and— as its name “Out O’ Sight” implied (complete with the face of a mouse peeking out from the middle O)— easy to hide. Although revolutionary at the time, the wood-and-wire, spring-snap trap quickly became the leading design, and today it’s the most recognizable one. Hooker and his mousetraps were a huge success. But they might have done even better if it weren’t for an Englishman who not only stole Hooker’s design, but the credit for it as well.

THE WILY ENGLISHMAN

Even today, if you look up the inventor of the mousetrap, you may run across the name of James Henry Atkinson from Leeds, Yorkshire. A self-described “ironmonger,” the wannabe inventor had received patents for various contraptions before, but his mousetrap application to the British Patent Office in 1898 was unique: the trap was small, elegant, simple, cheap to manufacture, and easy to hide.

He called it the “Little Nipper,” and it was a near-perfect copy of the design Hooker had patented three years earlier. “It is quite likely that Atkinson had seen the Hooker trap in the shops or in advertisements,” admitted British historical writer Stephen Dulkin. Back then, this sort of infringement happened a lot because the British Patent Office didn’t begin systematically researching whether a claimed invention had been done before until 1905. (Image credit: Jerry mouse)

Over the years, other mousetraps were invented besides Hooker’s. Some are arguably better than one that kills mice by breaking their spines with a brutal snap of metal. But although some have gained a little bit of traction, the Hooker trap continues to rule the mousetrap kingdom.

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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