Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

10 Attempts to Build Better Mousetraps

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

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.


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."


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.


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.


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.


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.


Smithsonian American Art Museum Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // The Commons

"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.


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.

Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
Original image
iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

Original image
Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
Original image
Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


More from mental floss studios