by popular television presenter Adam Hart-Davis
and his perpetual mousetrap
Colin Pullinger was a man of many parts. Among other things, he claimed to be a builder, baker, undertaker, fisherman, farmer, mender of glass, cooper, clock-cleaner, collector of taxes, accountant, teacher of navigation, and repairer of umbrellas, not to mention clerk to the Selsey police, and clerk to the Selsey Sparrow Club!
He was born in 1814 in Ivy Cottage, Selsey, near Bognor. Despite all the claims on his trade card, he eventually inherited his father’s house and carpentry business, and then, in about 1860, he invented a new mouse-trap.
Mice have always plagued people; ever since we first moved into desirable semi-detached caves, mice have moved right in alongside us, and made the most of it. So, people must have been inventing mouse-traps for thousands of years. Indeed, the mouse-trap has become a sort of symbol of human ingenuity – which is what inventing is all about!
The earliest were probably just holes in the ground. The followed bottles sunk into the earth, so that mice which fell in could not climb out up the smooth and overhanging walls.
Caught in a trap
One of the earliest mechanical traps we know about was a pit-fall trap, made of four vanes revolving around a spindle. At any time one was level with the top of a table, and all four were smeared with bait – traditionally a mixture of oatmeal and honey. The mouse came along the table, smelled the bait, trod on the vane, and dropped into the pit (or probably a bucket of water). I reckon most mice would feel the vane was unsafe when they put one toe on it, but who knows, maybe they were dimmer then.
The standard modern trap has a powerful spring to kill the mouse, but apart from its terminal cruelty this design has a major disadvantage. It can only catch one mouse at a time – so once it’s sprung, it’s sprung, and any other mice can come along and eat the cheese with impunity.
Colin’s first idea was to invent a mouse-trap that would catch mouse after mouse, and stay ready all of the time. He came up with the Pullinger Perpetual Mouse-Trap. The heart of the machine is the seesaw in the middle.
The mouse comes along, sees and smells the bait from the outside, and steps through the entrance onto beam A. It walks to the right, since there’s nowhere else to go, and its weight makes the seesaw tilt to the right.
The mouse is now trapped – there is no way back to the entrance hole. So it goes down, through the one-way mouse-gate B at the bottom, into the space behind. The mouse-gate B shuts; so the mouse cannot get back, and meanwhile because the seesaw has rocked over, the next mouse will go the other way – and the trap is always set, ready for more mice. Colin always stressed how humane it was, as the mice were unharmed.
Colin Pullinger’s mouse-trap was incredibly successful. His advertising claim was that he had caught 28 mice in one trap in a single night, and that in 9 months a farmer had caught nearly 1,000 mice in one trap. I don’t know whether these claims are true, but we do know that in the 1861 census he described his son Charles as a ‘mouse-trap maker’, and he employed three men and 15 boys just to make mouse-traps. The factory grew until Pullinger employed 40 people (he was the biggest employer in Selsey). They had horse-powered circular saws and drills, they could make a trap in four and a half minutes, and they made 960 a week. By 1885 they had sold two million traps, a half a crown apiece (12p) and the company went on making Pullinger mouse-traps until 1920.
Which all goes to show the truth in the old saying, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door!”
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An original Pullinger Mouse-Trap