A true but sad tale about building a better mousetrap

Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson—and his inspiration.

Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson—and his inspiration.

At an 1871 lecture in California, American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said something that fundamentally changed the way swarms of Americans would think about success:

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor … the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

There’s some controversy how accurate the quote is—it was written down later, from memory, by a reporter—but the sentiment is truly Emerson’s. Basically, he said if you make something of quality, people will be drawn to you like moths to a flame. Eventually, that will make you rich.

His idea and words tapped the American psyche in a deep way. It was the American Dream of success, ingenuity, inventiveness and self-reliance all neatly wrapped into one sentence.

Unfortunately, some folks took him way too literally… especially the mousetrap part. But more on that in a minute.

For much of human history, mice and other vermin have been a constant problem—bringing disease, eating our food and slowly wrecking our stuff with their tiny teeth and claws. A mouse made its way into my attic once, and all I could think about was getting rid of the damn thing. One exterminator and $300 later, we were free at last. The exterminator, in valiant pride, showed me the itty-bitty gray rodent carcass stuck to a 50¢ glue trap—and my over-reaction to the whole incident was glaringly obvious. I was so taken.

But, back to mousetraps.

Inspired by Emerson’s quote, many an inventor tried his hand at creating a better mousetrap—only to find that the world promptly ignored them and their little gadgets. The inventions got quite elaborate and expensive at times, but no one beat any paths to any doors.

That is, until John Mast came on the scene.

Mast, a Pennsylvania native, is credited with being the first mousetrap inventor who actually did some early market research. Folklore has it that Mast treated a group of women to dinner one night and asked them what they really wanted in a mousetrap. At the time, there were spring-loaded traps, but the women complained that they were hard to use, and their fingers and dresses got caught in them.

VictorMast listened, and eventually came up with the “snap trap” seen in every slapstick comedy since. (Today, it’s called the Victor Mouse Trap, and hasn’t changed much since its introduction in 1895. They still sell about 10 million traps a year, depending on the current mouse census.)

The product was an enormous hit, making Mast a rich man. Eventually, he sold his company, which was taken over in time by a gentleman named Chester Woolworth.

Woolworth, by many accounts, was one of those people who took Emerson’s quote to heart. Although people were already beating a path to the company’s door, he thought a better mousetrap would bring even more. He labored long and hard and finally invented a new trap called the Little Champ.

It failed, miserably.

Woolworth’s contraption actually hid the mouse’s strangled body from the homeowner. It did its work with Grim Reaper efficiency. And it was reusable—you simply pressed a button, and dropped the little varmint into the garbage.

Unlike Mast, and to his ultimate failure, Woolworth never asked a soul what they were looking for in a mousetrap.

His cost almost three times what a snap-trap cost. No one—no one—liked the idea of emptying a dead mouse’s body into the garbage. It grossed them out. They just wanted to throw the trap away and forget it.

The Victor trap was cheap, and it worked… just how the people wanted it to.

It is said that Woolworth lost many a night’s sleep over his failed mousetrap. Scathed and wiser, his view of customers, and Emerson, changed.

He urged others to beat a path to their customers’ doors to find out what they really want. Woolworth learned the hard way that a cool product is only part of the formula for success. It also must meet a customer’s true needs.

Later in life, a disillusioned Woolworth was quoted as saying, “Mr. Emerson made his living as a philosopher, not as a company president.”

Oooh, snap.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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