The History of Rat Traps

November 03, 2021 6 min read

rat trap

 

There's an old saying which states that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. This highlights humanity's continued dedication to trapping invasive rodents. It's little wonder why people are so dedicated to taking care of rodent problems. Rats and mice are an incredibly invasive species. Without prompt action, a single breeding pair of rodents can quickly because a huge problem. 

Rats and mice can ruin food, spread illness and damage your home. Some invasive species of rats and mice can even decimate the local ecology if left unchecked. It's vitally important that people deal with mice and rat populations before they have a chance to grow into a less easily managed size. Which, of course, means using the best possible options for rat traps. But what are the best traps and what makes them so effective? To answer that question we need to look at mouse and rat trap history to see which features matter the most. 

The First Early Hints 

The earliest moments in history can be rather fuzzy. The historic record often lacks some of the more commonplace activities in our lives. This is in large part simply due to the fact that people rarely document activities that they'd consider unremarkable. For example, consider how often you've written down how a mailbox works. This may well be why we have so little documentation about the earliest forms of rat and mouse traps. 

The earliest mention of a rat or mouse trap occurs in the ancient Greek Batrachomyomachia. The work is typically dated to somewhere between the 6th through 4th centuries BCE. The document mentions a wooden trap that functions as a "destroyer of mice". 

Documents dating back to the 17th century use mousetraps as an allusion or to illustrate a point. For example, Shakespeare's Hamlet uses the term to illustrate the idea of a play within a play. The 19th century sees The Three Musketeers using the term mousetrap in a chapter title, but we don't see a technical description of a working mousetrap until 1894. 

The Little Nipper Introduces a Familiar Aesthetic 

The late 1800s mark a dramatic break with the traps of the past. We don't know exactly how rodent traps were typically designed throughout most of history, but it's safe to bet that the traps operated through a traditional box-based design. 1894 marked the point where humanity starts to really get creative with its ideas. 

William C. Hooker of Illinois first patented a new type of mouse trap in 1894. The other side of the ocean would see something similar in 1898 with James Henry Atkinson's "Little Nipper" design. The two concepts are quite similar in many respects, but the Little Nipper is generally thought of as the more influential design due to its use of a weight activated treadle. 

Another reason for the Little Nipper's claim to fame is that its legacy is still readily apparent. There's a clear line of ownership and development from this basic mousetrap which directly ties into the sale of Atkinson's patent in 1913. Though we can also see the trap's influence simply by looking at it. 

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An Easily Recognizable Influence 

If you asked the average person what a traditional rat or mouse trap looks like he'd probably describe the Little Nipper. It's an elegantly simple but effective design incorporating a flat board, spring and snapping wire. The trap itself doesn't just take a mere second to spring into action. It works in just 1/38,000th of a second. 

The influence and elegant simplicity of the Little Nipper is why the phrase "build a better mousetrap" was coined. Most people were well aware of the fact that newer technologies could provide a superior alternative to this design. The need for a better trap was readily apparent as well. For example, the term rat and mouse trap is often used interchangeably today. 

But consider just how much size matters with a design similar to the Little Nipper. Rats and mice are similar enough that we always want to use the same trap for both, but rat trap success will often drop if it's being used on mice. Likewise, a trap designed for mice won't work as well on larger rats. The ideal would be something that works equally well on both. But actually figuring out a way to create something that can handle all invasive rodents is quite another matter. From the point when the Little Nipper was introduced, there'd be a large number of attempts to do so. 

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The First Attempt at a More Humane Approach 

The first serious competitor to the Little Nipper appeared in 1924 from Austin Kness. Kness devised a trap that uses multiple methods to attract the attention of rodents. Once this is done they investigate the trap and are trapped live and without harming them. Austin Kness was of course limited by the era he lived in. This new trap did prove successful, but it was still only a small dent in the market of traditional traps. 

Over time, more people would experiment with live-capture techniques. This method is often used for larger animals in natural settings, but these traps have generally proven more difficult to use for the average homeowner. 

Widespread Experiments With Unfortunate Effects 

Over time, we see one major theme rising up time and time again. Technology is often the limiting force behind the development of better traps. Most people want to deal with rodent infestations in the most humane and effective way possible, but people inventing traps are often limited by the cost or feasibility of their plans. 

For a long time most attempts to make better traps have either had limited effectiveness or were more cruel than the Little Nipper style. People could improve on some aspects of the traditional design, but in improving one part of the trap another would typically suffer. Manufacturers tended to favor efficiency over the ideal of cruelty-free designs. As such we see a proliferation of traps using glue, poison or other effective but cruel methods to deal with rodents. 

For a long time this was effectively the state of things. People were forced to go with an inefficient but unethical system, or they could use an ethical system with vastly lowered efficiency. New models which tried to do both well would typically not be much better than the traps made in the late 19th century, and this was just how things were until the early 21st century. 

The Modern Era Brings Some Huge Improvements 

The first self-resetting, humane, piston-based traps went into beta in 2009. Interestingly enough, the motivation for creating this type of trap was directly related to the dual problem of ethics and efficiency. The traps were created in direct response to the fact that existing methods were either inefficient or inhumane. 

This concept would eventually evolve into the A24 rat and mouse trap. It combines a highly-effective success rate with a quick kill method of pest control. The system is powered by CO2 canisters which can be used 24 times before they need to be replaced. 

The A24 also highlights why it took so long to see a significant improvement on rat and mouse traps. The rat trap success rate of the A24 is in large part due to technologies which just weren't feasible until fairly recently. Mechanical systems which are able to operate independently of their owners would seem like science fiction to people in the 19th century, but in the 21st century, we finally have design principles that can create some amazing results. 

It’s Important To Take Action 

The modern state-of-the-art trap differs significantly from the Little Nipper, but there's one constant that hasn't changed. It's always been important to take care of rodent problems as quickly as possible. This is also one of the best aspects of modern traps. 

Today you can use the new and more effective traps to take care of mouse and rat infestations before they have a chance to get out of control, but you only get those advantages when you're actively making use of them. It's important to not only buy, but also use, the modern traps as quickly as possible. In doing so you can ensure that rodent problems are taken care of in a safe, efficient and quick-kill way.

 


The Homeowners Guide To Catching Rats & Mice

Every year, rats and mice enter 20 million U.S. homes uninvited. They reproduce rapidly, and can cost thousands of dollars in damages and extermination costs. They can ruin equipment, spoil food and start fires by chewing on wires.

We’ve trapped millions (seriously, millions) of rats and mice and the knowledge of what it takes to achieve success is highlighted in this guide.

Homehowners Guide to Catching Rats

 



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