Mosquito Targets Teens With Audio Repellent

Local business owners have found a solution to the problem of loitering teenagers — an audio repellent called The Mosquito. The device emits a high-pitched sound that drives teens crazy but can't be heard by most adults over 25. Inventor Howard Stapleton explains how it works.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Just down the street from this studio, business owners near a big stop on the Washington D.C. metro system have been worried that large numbers of noisy and sometimes unruly teenagers drive away customers, and they may have found a solution, an audio repellent.

(Soundbite of Mosquito)

If you're a geezer like me, you probably didn't hear that, which is exactly the point. The device called the Mosquito emits a piercing high-pitch sound designed to drive sharp eared teenagers crazy, but it's inaudible to most people over 25. In a moment, we'll talk with its inventor. But we also want to hear about lower tech techniques to achieve the same end. If you try to discourage kids hanging around your store, if you've been one of those trouble makers, tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Howard Stapleton, the inventor of the mosquito, joins us on the phone from Wales. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. HOWARD STAPLETON (Inventor, Mosquito): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And I understand you came up with this idea because, well, you'd had an experience as a kid.

Mr. STAPLETON: Yeah. I (unintelligible) to the factory and they used a technique called ultrasonic welding to glue plastic components together. On a factory tool with an adult, so I walked in to a room where the process took place had to turn around and walk straight back out. The adults wondered what the problem was and I said, the noise. And all the adults went, what noise?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What noise?

Mr. STAPLETON: And that's what stuck in my mind.

CONAN: Because as we age, we can no longer hear up to well. Some people can hear up to 20,000 cycles per second or so.

Mr. STAPLETON: Yeah, that's correct. But, generally, as we get older, the third part of your hearing should go into ability to hear high frequency and that's obviously what the Mosquito relies on.

CONAN: And you device this particular device because you remembered what to you as a kid and a business owner had a problem.

Mr. STAPLETON: Yeah, the store just a few hundred yards down from where I lived. My daughter visited (unintelligible) going to get some milk about 6 7:00 in the evening and couldn't get in the store because of the gang as unruly drunk boys, teenage boys, outside the shop who made her life miserable. She came back home crying. I complained to the shop keeper, and because I work in the security industry, he turned it around on me suggested that we install CCTV cameras. And I said I'm only going to do is end that with pictures that kids behaving badly. But I got an idea. Do you mind if I try?

I threw together a system I'm electronics engineer, installed it on a Friday, sat outside the store in my car, quietly. On Saturday evening, they we're turning up there, getting noisy and rowdy, turned it on. It took about six, seven minutes before the first teenager noticed the noise. And then, it took about 13, 14 minutes before they decided they were so fed up with the noise, they would move on. End of his problem.

CONAN: I'm wearing a very nice pair of headphones here, in a nice radio studio, and we played that sound. I couldn't hear anything. What does it sound like?

Mr. STAPLETON: Well, it sounds - the best description is the demented alarm clock. A lot of people get the Mosquito wrong. It isn't particularly loud. It's equivalent to a garden lawnmower running at close distance. It works on the noise that it makes. It's highly irritating. The noise pulses on and off, four times a second and that really does begins to do your head in. After, as I said, five to 10 minutes, you'll pick up on the sound. And most people, after 20 or 30 minutes, have had enough of them and move away. It's not the volume. It's just the demented alarm clock sound. Just like in the morning, if you put up your alarm clock for five minutes, then finally you got to turn it off.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STAPLETON: In the case of Mosquito, you'll put up with it, but 10 to 15 minutes and find you've got to move away.

CONAN: And how many of these devices have you installed?

Mr. STAPLETON: We sell them worldwide, absolutely. We've even have the United Nation buy them for use in some third world countries where shop owners have a tendency to shoot loitering teenagers who are misbehaving. So they've installed some of our devices to prevent that, believe it or not. We've sold them around the world. And today, we've sold (unintelligible) in the region of five and a half to 6,000 units.

CONAN: Wow. Are there noise ordinances that get in your way some places, where there might be against the ordinance of a city or a town or a local area, to install such a thing?

Mr. STAPLETON: No, there aren't. I mean, in as much (unintelligible) - it's no louder - I mean, the traffic noise. I've seen the locations and stores. (Unintelligible) coming out Washington. That area, the traffic noise has gone -it's actually louder than The Mosquito. The only reason he Mosquito is still heard and will be affected is because there's very little high frequency noise out in the environment. So the noise, it might still stands out. I reiterate, it's not because it's loud, it's just because it gets very annoying that the device works at all.

CONAN: And you mentioned your daughter as well in the development of this device. But there's also been a subsequent development where some people have turned this technology around. Teenagers use the Mosquito sound or a similar sound as a ring tone or their cell phones so they can text each other in class and the teacher can't hear it.

Mr. STAPLETON: I know. That's a little bit annoying. I came up with that idea, but I decided it caused too much problems in classrooms. So I didn't market it. Someone - then, I believe, as they say, on your side of the problem (unintelligible) started marketing the noise as a ring tone. So I did get in there, eventually. I'm not a stupid businessman. We've actually taken quite a few ring tone sales companies in the states to court and got injunctions against them. But that's the (unintelligible) industry. As quickly as you get the court judgments against them, they pack up and start the following day under a new name. If I had received even five percent of the royalties that I'm due, because it was the most downloaded ring tone of all time, I'd have a nice island to myself in the Bahamas or somewhere.

CONAN: We're talking with Howard Stapleton, inventor of The Mosquito. And 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. We want to hear from those of you who might have been teenage troublemakers. What did the store owners do to chase you out of the place. And store owners, what do you do now? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Kerry(ph), Kerry with us from Portland.

KERRY (Caller): Hi. Well, I'm 40 and I definitely heard a really annoying a high-pitched sound. And I was just wondering, you know, how often that happens, that somebody who is way over 25 would hear it? And also, I just heard the comment about classrooms. And I was a teacher for nine years, so I just thought it wouldn't have worked on me.

CONAN: It would not have worked on you, but you're may be some acoustic freak.

KERRY: Yeah.

CONAN: Howard Stapleton, obviously, there are some cases of people older than 25.

Mr. STAPLETON: Yeah. Absolutely. Our record so far is a lady who's 68, but she was a choir mistress. She taught gold-medal winning girls choir, and she could hear the device. Generally, when you used externally, too much, over 25, you hear very little of it. Though I do notice, from where this device is installed, there's a lot of concrete around the area. High frequency noise doesn't pass through solid objects. It reflects off it. So you end up with a reflection acting with the original sound. So it can lower the sounds a little. Maybe, if it carries on being a problem for older ears, the owners with that particular device needs to knock the volume down a notch or two. And then, it's - well, I'm in my early 40s. I developed this five years ago, so I was like in late 30s. And the joke is, of course, I actually invented something I can't hear at all. And I only managed to develop it with the assistance of my five children.

CONAN: Kerry, thanks very much for the call. And continue with your high frequency access.

KERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Zach(ph) in Grand Rapids. I think youths affected by devices such as The Mosquito should submit noise complaints to their local police. Provided the victims of these devices are not engaging in unlawful activity, they should be able to seek the protection of their rights to freely assemble and travel the streets without undue intrusion from fellow citizens. The Mosquito, writes Zach, is effectively vigilante justice.

Mr. STAPLETON: You know, in many ways, I agree with that statement. It is very important. The Mosquito was never designed for - to stop teenagers congregating in a single area. The unit is designed to prevent anti-social behavior. When the situation gets to a large group of teens who are obviously been drinking or taking drugs and, of course, a nuisance in the area, that is when The Mosquito should be used. Normally, when this device is installed, it needs to be used for three or four weeks fairly constantly. But after that, and I hope the owners of this particular device start limiting its use to when there is actually problems at the site.

I am not and never have been anti-teenagers. In fact, I've got five kids. What I am, though, is I am fed up of the rudeness and the spitefulness of just a small minority of our teenagers. How? When I was a teenager, if I have spat at a police officer or sworn at the police officer, I'd have had a clip around the ear and my dad would have taken a belt to me. Where has that gone? That's disappeared out the door. It's time for good, honest, taxpaying citizens to get their streets back and not be intimidated by large groups of teenage gangs.

CONAN: Let's go to Michael(ph), Michael with us from Hayward in California.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hey, thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Well, my comment is uh - because I'm a security officer at the mall in Freemont. And I thought it would be pretty unique if we had one of those devices on our belts, because we have a high school right next to the mall. And the school is in session and they come over here for lunch and after school. And, you know, they're always causing troubles and stuff like that. I wouldn't mind having that to physically deter them away.

CONAN: I think what he was telling us, is that it doesn't need to be in place for five or six or even 15 minutes to be effective. Isn't that right, Mr. Stapleton?

Mr. STAPLETON: Yeah. The idea, of course, is once you got a larger group and it's got unmanageable, that's when the device turns on. We provide it with lots of different controls. The most basic is simply a timer because there are times, you know, early evening, maybe lunch times, where you got large congregations which cause problems. So the device turns on automatically. Then we even do a version which can be turn on and off via password, via mobile phone, which may be great for your security consultant is on the phone at the moment. If you got problems, you simply dial into the machine and turns it on. When the teenagers have gone or start behaving, he can turn it off. And that's the best way to use it. It they step over the line and start causing troubles to other people, turn it on. When they start behaving, quiet down a little, turn it off. It is amazing how quickly the teenagers realize that, you know, when we're genuinely fed up with them. And they soon alter their behavior.

They don't want to be shooed away. They prefer to stay there and hang out with their friends, but they know when, as I've said, the older tax-paying members of the public, are fed up with them.

CONAN: Michael, how old are you?

MICHAEL: I'm actually 21.

CONAN: So you're...

MICHAEL: So I'll probably have to wear something to protect myself. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STAPLETON: No, you wouldn't. It's - honestly, it really isn't that loud even if you're close to it. But it is very annoying. You wouldn't want to hang around in the area nor will teenagers. But please, if you do get one of my devices, use it when the kids are misbehaving. Don't just simply use it when they're loitering.

CONAN: Michael, thanks...

MICHAEL: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And Howard Stapleton, we wanted to thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. STAPLETON: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Howard Stapleton, the inventor of The Mosquito, the high-pitched device which - a device which emits a high-pitched noise meant to drive away unruly teenagers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

We also wanted to hear some of your experiences with, well, other lower-tech methods of deterring unruly teenagers. We have an email from David(ph) in St. Louis: Chasing away teenagers from large sites such as railroad, easements, quarries and other industrial sites must be harder now than when I was a kid. Rock salt fired from a small shotgun was a powerful deterrent to loitering in unwelcome places.

It sounds like The Mosquito might be an advantage to that.

Let's see if we can go to Janet(ph). Janet, with us from Portland.

JANET (Caller): Oh, hi. I heard a story sometime ago about some area - I think it was in London where they were using classical music, and particularly, opera music. And it really drove the teenagers away where they were not wanted.

CONAN: Discouraged them, unless they happen to like arias.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANET: Yeah. Yeah. And I just think that's a low-tech away and actually pleasant for some people.

CONAN: All right. Janet, thanks very much. Have you ever experienced that yourself?

JANET: No, but I - there have been moments when I wanted to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Todd(ph). Todd, with us from Beaufort in South Carolina.

TODD (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

TODD: Well, I teach high school down in Beaufort, South Carolina, and I'm in an unfortunate part of the building where students like to congregate after the school. And I don't have this device, but I did download the tone, which is a certain kilohertz, and I found it very effective to be a non-confrontational way of, you know, just kind of getting them to leave.

CONAN: So you were one of those people who downloaded the tone from the Internet?

TODD: Correct. It wasn't the ring tone that the teachers can't hear, although I'm aware of that.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

TODD: And unfortunately, I can hear it. I'm 41.

CONAN: And you can hear it?

TODD: I can hear it quite well, but I don't think I get the full effect because it's just kind of a little irritant to me. It's not, you know, extremely irritating.

CONAN: You say you're aware of the ring tone as well. Have you seen that in class?

TODD: No, sir. But the kids are quite aware of it. And certain students have told me that they know people that use it.

CONAN: They know people use it, but you've not experienced it directly?

TODD: Correct.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Do you say it's effective?

TODD: Very effective.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Chris(ph). Chris, with us from Oakland.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: Great show. Very interesting. I had an--I've been reading about that. I think it was a 7-Eleven or a convenience store somewhere in the States in, like, Pennsylvania or Upstate New York, where a guy would play Mantovani to keep the teenagers away.

CONAN: So, as opposed to opera, the - you play the thousand and one strings?

CHRIS: Yeah, same approach.

CONAN: Same...

CHRIS: ...just the music they don't like.

CONAN: And do you think that might be effective?

CHRIS: For some kids, probably, yeah. I mean, if you turn it loud enough. I was curious - I guess he's gone, but I was wondering if they have ever used The Mosquito with a proximity censor? So if someone hangs out for too long, that way you don't have to have the human - I mean, I - I guess you'll want someone to be home and turning it on when someone's misbehaving, not just loitering.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: But I think having the human judgment factor of a - you know, what is basically a low-grade, weaponized, you know, sound-producing device, judgment is - can be a scary thing.

CONAN: All right. Chris, thanks very much.

CHRIS: Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We have an email from Hank in Yulee, Florida, who says: Can you play the sound again? I want to see if my old ears can hear it. Well, we've got it cued up again. So if you're young, cover your ears. Geezers, pay attention.

(Soundbite of Mosquito)

I didn't hear it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's another email: As a teacher, I know many teenagers strongly dislike puns, often reacting with pained groans and rolled eyes. Engage unruly teens in conversation, making as many puns as you can, and then they'll leave.

Unfortunately, we can't rent out Ken Rudin. Let's see if we can go next to Fred(ph). Fred, with us from Tulsa.

FRED (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Go ahead.

FRED: I taught at a public high school here, and there was one stairwell that the kids will bring all their food up and sit down in the stairwell. And it just would get - they'd get in the way and everything. And you try and ask them to not do that, and they wouldn't do it. I found that a nice application of something that just didn't smell very good at all to the whole stairwell...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRED: ...right before lunch, works just fine. They didn't stay there.

CONAN: What did you use?

FRED: Oh, I use something that smell bad like a (unintelligible) oil or something, but it would evaporate after a while. But it - the smell would keep them out though. They didn't want to stay there.

CONAN: Oh, you're assaulting another sense. And so, Fred, thanks very much. I'm glad it worked for you. Appreciate it.

FRED: Thank you.

CONAN: We were talking about The Mosquito, a device invented by Howard Stapleton. Tomorrow, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, joins us as we kick off the school year with a studio full of students and teachers who will pepper him with questions. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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