The Tale of the Schrempeltraps

Once upon a time, I worked at a company where the lead scientist/CTO for one of the divisions had some compulsive behaviors. He was a German PhD electrical engineer of the small, wizened tinker gnome persuasion. Whatever Grimm’s fairy tale mental picture you have of a watch/clockmaker is pretty much spot on, though put him in some North Face gear and wearing Birkenstocks. His name was Schrempel and this is the cautionary Tale of the Schrempeltraps.

Before he had come to work at my company, he’d been a scientist at CERN and before that at the Max Planck Institute. While Schrempel was a brilliant, wonderfully funny and charming guy, he was absolutely loathed in the laboratory because he was an inveterate button pusher, switch flipper, knob turner and lever puller. More than a few times he had caused experiments to be rebuilt or rerun because he couldn’t resist reaching out to flip a switch on a console. His students took to covering their benches and equipment racks with shrouds and putting up signs that said “DO NOT TOUCH. ESPECIALLY YOU SCHREMPEL. GO AWAY.” in each of the languages he spoke to make sure he got the point.

It never worked. He couldn’t resist.

After weighing the options of killing him vs. giving up on ever completing a project, one of the other scientists suggested that behavioral modification might work on Schrempel. That perhaps, like B.F. Skinner’s experiments, Schrempel could be conditioned to not touch shit. So, they came up with a plan: they would add a bunch of extra buttons and toggles to their equipment consoles that weren’t connected to anything on the bench, but were connected to a low voltage power supply. The hope was that if Schrempel got shocked enough times he would learn and would stop touching things. Basically, they wanted to do this:

Sadly, that didn’t work either.

They then hoped that perhaps shame would work, but it had to be a very particular shame. External shame from angry co-workers hadn’t worked. No, it need to be his own shame, disappointment in himself. After brainstorming how to do this, a student came up with a simple low cost solution. They took a Stanley tape measure, pulled it out 30cm, set the lock on it, placed it on a table in the break room with the end of the tape at the table edge and the body of it in the center of the table. They then took a screwdriver and removed the stay from the end of the tape. They placed the stay, the small screws, and screwdriver next along side the tape in perfectly clear view. They then put a large sign suspended from the ceiling above it that said “SCHREMPELTRAP” on it.

They then walked away and waited for Schrempel to find it. He walked into the break room, saw the tape measure on the table, picked it up, immediately released the lock and the tape retracted all the way into the body of the tape measure as there was no stay. He blinked a few times, looked at the tape measure in his hand, read the sign, looked at the tape measure again, looked at the screwdriver and parts, looked at the sign again and gave a deep sigh. He then sat down with the screwdriver to open the tapemeasure up to fix it by reattaching the stay.

That is what got him. That got him to stop and think before touching things.