Can you build a better mousetrap?

It’s the category with the highest number of awarded patent applications – mousetraps. From the time the US Patent Office opened it’s doors in 1838 upto 1996, over 4400 patents have been granted for new and innovative ways to capture the rat. It does not indicate the number of patents that have been rejected or passed over, though that would be significant as well. So, why do a lot of people think they can build a better version? Is it because they believe that the best has not been invented yet? The one that has the biggest market share called the ‘Little Nipper’ was invented by James Henry Atkinson in 1897. It slams shut in 8/10ths of a second – so ten of them could go off by the time you blink once. Even a rat with Bruce Lee’s legendary reflexes could not hope to escape that one. If it did, the rat deserves a standing ovation and a place in the neurological Hall of Fame. The article in ‘The Atlantic’ explores a far more interesting premise – whether mousetraps represent the height of innovation. It’s as if we cannot help ourselves – even if a problem is solved brilliantly – paper clips are an excellent example, we continue to try and make them better.

A better solution does not necessarily mean a bigger market either. 95% of the mousetrap patent holders have made losses or no money at all on their invention. The leading model has about 60% of the international market. There are 10-30 million mousetraps sold every year and getting the actual figure is difficult, since there are still a number of cottage industry variations. But the price in the US has risen from 5 cents in 1900 to just about 7 cents several decades later. When an invention gets to be ubiquitous, it also becomes a commodity where price is the only differentiator and margins are wafer thin.

What’s amazing, however, is the number of ways that have been imagined to trap the rodent. Some of the traps were savage, hacking off limbs or impaling them. But there was also a curious set of ‘toy traps’ used to lure the animals and then, the mechanism would move forcing the frightened animal to turn, roll or spin –  and entertain onlookers in the process – like the hampster trap where the rat is doomed to keep running. Today’s city slickers have almost no contact with the animal – unless they see it strolling around in a restaurant or scarpering in the night. It’s still the cliche to end all cliches – scared damsel runs into the strong hero’s arms for protection, as well as the cliche for innovation. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reputed to have said – ‘Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door’. Unfortunately, building the best product is no guarantee of success – as some of the world’s well-known brands will ruefully tell you