At Maker Faire, giant mousetrap crushes a taxi

The crew of a human-size version of the board game Mousetrap--think bowling balls instead of those tiny metal marbles--arrived in New York this week with the aim of using the proudly inefficient machine to flatten one of the city's yellow cabs.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
The already-half-destroyed New York taxi that the Lifesize Mousetrap gleefully obliterated at the World Maker Faire in Queens, N.Y., this weekend. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

QUEENS, N.Y.--They did it, mostly: The artists and engineers who dreamed up, built, and now operate a large-scale version of the classic board game Mousetrap took center stage at this weekend's World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science, with the aim of flattening a New York taxi with a two-ton safe through a series of deployments of their massive Rube Goldberg machine. Standing guard were the Lifesize Mousetrap operators--a half dozen clowns, a few women in tasteful burlesque costumes with mouse ears and tails, and a man in a gorilla suit.

If this all sounds a little weird, that's the point. The Lifesize Mousetrap encapsulates just about all of Maker Faire's values: an embrace of all things wacky, a dedication to the homemade, and an edgy breed of family-friendliness that encourages kids' and adults' involvement in science and art through everything from sewing to soldering.

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Artist Mark Perez spent nearly 15 years designing and building the Lifesize Mousetrap, and every time his team makes an appearance they require five days to assemble the device and two days to dissemble it. Weighing a total of 50,000 pounds, the Lifesize Mousetrap machinery includes a ship's anchor, a 350-pound bathtub, a 30-foot-tall crane, a fake human skeleton, and a metal spiral that had been dubbed "The Brooklyn Tornado" in homage to the actual tornado that had made a jaunt through the normally peaceful Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope during a storm earlier in the month.

"Without imagination, where would we be?" Perez exclaimed as he emceed a Sunday morning run of the Lifesize Mousetrap, carnival-barker style.

Kids and grown-ups gather behind metal barriers while awaiting a Sunday morning deployment of the Lifesize Mousetrap. In the foreground is the machine's 'diving skeleton.' Caroline McCarthy/CNET

The Lifesize Mousetrap has made the rounds across the country, including most recently a previous Maker Faire stop in Detroit this summer, so videos of the contraption are naturally all over YouTube. But seeing the thing in action is an experience in itself: Watching the team ready the mousetrap--putting in place a system of creaking machinery and precarious metalwork that looks like it might snap at any minute--the audience can witness up close just how precise the setup needs to be in order for the Mousetrap to reach its metal-twisting climax.

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A test run on Friday evening, in which the safe smashed a metal robot that looked a bit like something out of "Futurama," proceeded smoothly. According to Perez, four out of six of Saturday's deployments were successful.

On Sunday morning, as the Lifesize Mousetrap was getting ready to be deployed, the crowds were growing hushed. A cell phone rang, and the hasty voice of a boy in early adolescence stammered out, "Dad, we're watching the mousetrap, can't talk right now," before he cut off the call and looked back up at the spectacle that was about to unfold.

It wasn't a perfect run: on three separate occasions the bowling balls that provide the machine's crucial momentum went awry and either stopped or veered off course. In each case, there was a clown (or gorilla) ready to get the ball rolling again (literally) and chatty commentary from the jovial Perez, facetiously insisting, "You didn't see that! That didn't happen!"

Judging by how noisily the crowd of kids and grown-ups cheered when the two-ton safe smashed onto the taxi like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, crushing its axle and generating an impressive cloud of dust, they didn't care that there had been a few snags along the way.