Improbable Impractical Creativity

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”, the popular statement attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, belies the truth of the power of creativity and innovation.

As reported in the online version of The Atlantic magazine, between 1838 and 1996 the United States Patent Office awarded more than 4,400 mousetrap patents “in dozens of different subclasses, including ‘Electrocuting and Explosive,’ ‘Swinging Striker,’ ‘Choking or Squeezing,’ and 36 others.” That’s about two dozen patents per year for more than 150 years! According to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, that’s more patents issued than for any other device.

In spite of all these creative ideas for addressing mice infestations, and the promise of good fortune from building a better mousetrap, the original version created in 1897 appears to remain the best of the bunch today. With some slight modifications since its inception, the original accounts for about 60% of international mousetrap sales. It’s effective and inexpensive — it retails at $1.99 for a package of 2 in my part of the world. Of the 4,400 mousetrap patents awarded, the magazine reports, perhaps two dozen ever made any money for their inventors. So much for the world beating a path to the thousands of better mousetrap inventors’ doors.

And to correct the historical false attribution of authorship of the introductory statement, Ralph Waldo Emerson likely never said or wrote those well-known words. There is scant proof he did (or didn’t). What he did write, in his personal journal in 1855, was “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

Electrocuting and explosive mousetraps? Swinging striker mousetraps? Improbable and impractical, perhaps, but clearly creative. Yet sometimes the best solution is the original idea, with some fine-tuning. As Emerson said elsewhere, “Common sense is as rare as genius”.