A Riddle

When I was a child, my father would tell us a riddle. Or, since he would give us the answer, maybe it was a joke.

Riddle: Why is a mouse when it spins?

Answer: The higher the few.

Of course this strange grammar made no sense to us children. Why is not a question one can ask of a spinning mouse. My father claimed that this was a hilarious joke, and when we got it we would laugh for days. Of course that never happened.

Some years after my father died, I discovered that the spinning balls on a steam engine or steam tractor were colloquially called “the mouse”. They regulated the engine’s speed, and the higher their speed, the further out centrifugal force pulled them and the slower the engine turned. So the higher the mouse balls rose, the fewer revolutions of the engine, or, in the words of the joke, “the higher the few”.

Cut-away drawing of steam engine speed governor. The valve starts fully open at zero speed, but as the balls rotate and rise, the central valve stem is forced downward and closes the valve. The drive shaft whose speed is being sensed is top right
And there it is, the “mouse”

It still wasn’t good grammar, but maybe that was part of the joke. Maybe. I don’t know, and my father is long gone now so I can’t ask him. It was so like my father to never give the joke away. Or maybe he never knew. Or maybe that isn’t the joke.

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