As the saying often misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson goes, "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." The phrase is not literally about mousetraps, but about the drive to improve and perfect. And with thousands of mousetrap patents in the United States, it seems people can’t resist innovating new ways to slay vermin. (The Trap History Museum in Columbus, Ohio, has over 1500 different examples of mousetraps alone.) Nevertheless, the popular spring-loaded snap trap patented by William C. Hooker in 1894 remains the most popular option, aside from employing a feline hunter.
The variety of these mouse traps is astounding, and a bit harrowing, from electric cats to contraptions that approach Rube Goldberg machines. Here are 10 particularly ingenious examples.
1. DELUSION MOUSETRAP
The Nebraska State Historical Society recently shared their example of the curiously shaped trap, stating that the Victor Woodstream Corporation of Pennsylvania (best known for their snap traps marked with a “V”) still sells a version to confound wayward mice.When Nebraskan John H. Morris patented his trap in 1876, he stated that it could be used at “the entrance of stockyards.” Luckily for the cows, the elaborate trap—with its hinged door leading to a disorienting tunnel where a sort of seesaw closed the door—was apparently only ever marketed as the Delusion Mousetrap. Its ad explained the trap’s intricate process in rhyme: "The Mouse goes in to get the bait, / And shuts the door by his own weight, / And then he jumps right through a hole, / And thinks he's out; but bless his soul, / He's in a case somehow or other, / And sets the trap to catch another."
2. THE GUN TRAP
Back in 1882, James A. Williams of Fredonia, Texas, patented a rather alarming device illustrated by a mouse confronted with a firearm aimed down its burrow. Williams stated in his text he was “aware that burglar-alarms of various kinds have been used, and which have been connected to windows and doors in such a manner that the opening of the window or door causes a pressure upon a lever which discharges a fire-arm; but in no case have the parts been arranged and combined as here shown and described.” It may have been a novel arrangement, but it did follow other artillery traps, such as the "cemetery gun" intended to stop grave robbers in the 18th century.
3. THE CAGE TRAP
In this trap patented by William K. Bachman in 1870, the mouse is responsible for its own undoing. The animal can go in the cage and step out, but if it gnaws through the bait on a cord, the door shuts. It’s a pretty basic idea, and unsurprisingly has many versions, such as one at the State Museum of Pennsylvania made of a couple of planks of wood and a metal wire.
4. CHOKER TRAP
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Created in the 1920s, the Victor Choker Mouse Trap involved four entry holes, each with a loaded wire choker that would strangle any mouse that entered. Then you pressed a button and the bodies fell from the device, readying it to kill again. According to the Victor company, which is still in the extermination business, the trap evolved into their current Victor Tri-Kill trap, although as its name suggests, its slaying power has been downgraded from four to three.
5. ELECTRIC CAT
This "portable electronic mouse trap that has a housing in the shape of a cat" is only successful if mice are comfortable strolling up to the gaping jaw of a predator. When a 2006 Wall Street Journal article interviewed its creator, Brooklyn postal worker Charles Jordan, he’d only made a prototype, and it was shaped like a boring box. But when complete, per the 2005 patent, mice are lured by a "reservoir of a fragrance that smells like fresh cheese." Upon entering, a motion sensor turns on a vacuum that sucks the mouse into a suffocation chamber. Then a “speaker informs a user when the collection chamber is full." If you want to see it in action (sort of), Patently Silly has animated its patent drawings on YouTube.
As previously shared on mental_floss, this trap patented by Joseph Barad and Edward Markoff in 1908 is one of the more outlandish designs out there. Similar to the choker trap, a mouse entering would suddenly find itself collared. But rather than being strangled by the collar, the device around its neck held a bell. Then, in theory, this “bell-rat” would return to its friends and family and basically terrify them with the endless ringing. As claimed in the patent, bell noise is "very terrifying to animals of the species named and that if pursued by such sounds they will immediately vacate their haunts and homes, never to return." And as for the “bell-rat,” it must run forever and never understand why it is suddenly such a bane.
7. THE TRAP DOOR
Back in 2011, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened "Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection," an exhibition that included this 1870 mousetrap model from John O. Kopas and George W. Bauer. Up until 1880, American patents were required to include a patent model sent to Washington, D.C., and you can still see the 19th century trap in the museum's Luce Foundation Center. It painstakingly demonstrates, complete with a tiny mouse and bit of cheese, how rodents would plummet through spring-loaded platforms set up over trap doors.
Bill Oviatt stated in a 1997 issue of The Rotarian that the idea for his mousetrap "came to him in a dream." Nicknamed the “Teeter Pong” as it involves a plastic PVC pipe containing a ping pong ball that rocks back and forth on a stand, he patented it in 1996. When a mouse enters the pipe, lured by some treat, it tips and the ball covers the exit. While the deadly teeter-totter isn’t yet mainstream, it did make it onto David Letterman’s show, although on the segment the mouse escapes the trap and flees in a taxi.
9. PEERLESS MOUSE TRAP
"Extermination is certain," the 1921 advertisement for the “Peerless Mouse Trap” promised. Manufactured by the Automatic Trap Company [PDF] of Chicago, the trap involved mice climbing a structure and then falling into a deadly pool of water, a trapdoor resetting the whole thing as if no horror had occurred. Their promotional material could get downright Lovecraftian in its depictions of mice: "Their breath, saliva, and coat of fur are laden with germs and dirt that spread disease in their path. Increasing, as they do, out of sight and stealthily crawling forth to feed, their numbers are never fully apparent." While the complicated invention of connecting chambers didn’t take over the market, it might be worth looking in your attic corners for one, as an example recently sold for over $100 at auction.
10. CLOCKWORK TRAP
A 2009 issue of Michigan Farmer [PDF] describes this trap, patented by one J. Gould, as having a succession of key-wound clockwork mechanisms that raised and lowered doors as a mouse entered a succession of rooms, doors slamming behind it. Gould's 1873 patent text is incredibly elaborate, listing each platform, lever, spring, crank, box, and drop door that composed the puzzle-like device. As with many of these traps that assume a mouse is a robotic creature that will stop at nothing for some scrap of food, it seems unlikely that it would catch the dozen mice it was designed to hold. Nevertheless, its steampunk-esque style demonstrates that no matter the current technology, someone is likely thinking of ways to use it to rid their home of pests.