Today, let's build a better mousetrap. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Build a better mousetrap,
and the world will beat a path to your door,
Emerson supposedly wrote. But writer Jack Hope
finds what Emerson really wrote:
"If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell ... you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house."
 Nothing there about
mousetraps. In 1889, seven years after Emerson
died, someone quoted him as having said,
"If a mancan write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor ..."
and so on.
Emerson meant that quality prevails in the
marketplace, and that comes to light in an odd way
with the history of mousetraps. We've made a vast
investment of ingenuity in them. By now the Patent
Office has issued over 4400 mousetrap patents. Yet
only twenty or so of those patents have ever made
Today some 400 people still apply for mousetrap
patents each year. That leaves me to wonder whether
mousetraps really promise a fast track to inventive
success, or if they're simply born of some morbid
fascination with killing mice.
Actually, the mousetrap problem was solved in 1899
by one John Mast of Lititz, Pennsylvania. Mast
filed for a patent on his now-familiar snap-trap. A
heavy spring-steel wire swings down and breaks the
mouse's neck when he nibbles cheese on the trigger
mechanism. That was only ten years after the
mousetrap quotation became common currency. The
inventive muse (or maybe the inventive mouse!)
keeps generating mousetrap patents, but none has
yet beaten the snap-trap in the marketplace. No one
has really built a better mousetrap.
Before (and after) Mast, inventors cooked up an
unending series of gadgets for mashing, cutting,
and maiming mice -- for drowning them -- for
catching them alive. Early in the 20th century,
people tried electrocution. The problem is, an
electrocuted mouse continues to fry until someone
smells the mess.
In the end, esthetics and mercy are twin factors
that've strongly determined what the public will
and will not use. In the 1980s, a superglue trap
came out. It worked, but homeowners found
themselves faced with a screaming mouse, still
living, glued to a piece of sticky cardboard, dying
of exhaustion. If mice have to be killed, most
people can deal with a quickly broken neck. The
more gruesome stuff won't sell in the long run.
And when snap-trap makers found most people
throwing the trap out with the mouse, not even
trying to disengage it, they followed the public's
lead and began advertising snap-traps as
So while the mousetrap has become an icon for
inventive creativity, the public eventually
stipulates what's acceptable and what is not -- in
the grisly business of holding a competing species
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds