Mousetraps: A Symbol of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit

"Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."
                              -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

My mother has a mouse in her home. During a recent phone call, I couldn't get more than two words out before she started telling me about her troubles. The little rodent is hiding out in the attic -- or is it the basement? She has never seen it, but she insists that it's there. In an attempt to remove the mouse, she loaded up a standard spring trap with peanut butter and left it out.

When the trap failed to lure in a critter, she did not give up. She refused to admit that the noises could have been coming from outside the house or from something decidedly non-living inside. Maybe the old furnace, tired from battling the harsh Chicago winters was squeaking in protest. No, she kept at it: She declared that she could build a better mousetrap. She couldn't, of course, but she's not the first one to think that.

Story continues after the gallery.

We've been reading -- and arguing -- about the decline of the American entrepreneurial spirit since the end of World War II, when Galbraith insisted that the giant corporation had replaced the small businessman. Big business, big labor, big government. And then the '60s happened. Things got worse: Walmart was founded, McDonald's started popping up in every state across the country and mom-and-pop shops were forced out of small towns.

What does building a better mousetrap mean? Does it snap shut faster? Is it assembled using cheaper materials?

A natural extension of the American ethos, which would have you believe that by working hard you can succeed, might suggest that by working harder you can succeed more; by striking out and making a name for yourself you can live forever, if not physiologically, then through your creations, biological or otherwise. This country was founded and built by risk-takers and innovators. And while we live in the age of Amazon and Facebook, Google and Microsoft -- huge tech companies all, each continuing to absorb smaller companies as they prosper and grow -- I don't think Galbraith was ever completely right. The giant corporation is here -- but it has always existed alongside the small-time American entrepreneur.

And representative of that entrepreneurial spirit is, of all things, the mousetrap: A quick-release spring and a piece of metal bent in a few key places that Americans have been trying to improve upon for more than 100 years. "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door," Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher, essayist and co-founder of The Atlantic, supposedly once wrote. And that little saying has popped up time and again, most recently in the April 2011 issue of Wired. In a feature story about the founders of Kickstarter, an arts patronage idea that has morphed into a website responsible for funding thousands of projects, Carlye Adler dismissed Emerson's dictum as "a lovely thought."

"Reality, though, has fallen somewhat short of this promise," Adler declares. "Build a better mousetrap and, if you're extremely lucky, some corporation will take a look at it, send it through dozens of committees, tweak the design to make it cheaper to manufacture, and let the marketing team decide whether it can be priced to return a profit." Adler is right, of course, but that hasn't stopped thousands from trying to improve on an existing design.

Between 1838, when the United States Patent Office opened its doors, and 1996, the year that Jack Hope wrote a story about the device for American Heritage magazine, more than 4,400 mousetrap patents were awarded in dozens of different subclasses, including "Electrocuting and Explosive," "Swinging Striker," "Choking or Squeezing," and 36 others. That's an average of more than two dozen patents every year for more than 150 years. What makes that number more spectacular is that 95 percent of those patents were given to amateur, or first-time inventors.

That's more patents than have been awarded for any other device, according to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (NMAH), which is currently celebrating the mousetrap by displaying several different designs on the first floor of the museum in one of several long glass cases that greet visitors, both new and returning, when they enter the building.

"We chose them to represent technology because the drive to 'build a better mousetrap' symbolized to us the American drive to innovate," Bonnie Campbell Lilienfeld, deputy chair of the division of home and community life, told the NMAH's "O Say Can You See?" blog.

* * *

The "Little Nipper," a prototype for the standard spring-loaded snapping device you might immediately think of when asked to imagine a mousetrap, was invented by James Henry Atkinson in 1897. It's simple: flat wooden base, wire fastenings, spring trap. And, like the paperclip or the thumbtack, the simplest design is often the best, often the one that sticks. The "Nipper" slams shut in 38/1000ths of a second, which means you could set off a string of ten traps, lined up like dominos, in the time it takes you to blink once. That record still stands and Atkinson's device has reportedly captured about 60 percent of the international mousetrap market.

Atkinson sold the patent to Procter, the company that still manufactures the "Little Nipper," in 1913 for £1,000. He continued to work on traps while Procter made a mint off of his design and eventually erected a 150-exhibit mousetrap museum in Procter's factory headquarters.

Around the same time -- some say two years before and some say two years after (the patent wasn't awarded, though, until 1903) -- John Mast of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, patented a similar design that he released here in United States. But in a case that's reminiscent of the great telephone controversy between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, Mast's design was incredibly similar to that of Atkinson. Mast, too, sold off his patent. Oneida Community Ltd., known for its silverware, purchased Mast's design in 1907 and unloaded it years later to Woodstream Corp. Today, Woodstream still manufactures between 10 million and 30 million mousetraps based on Mast's design every year.

The two most successful mousetraps are incredibly similar devices. So what does building a better mousetrap mean, anyway? Does it snap shut faster? Is it assembled more quickly or use cheaper raw materials? Probably not: In 1900, the snap trap design sold for about five cents and, more than 60 years later, it was still available at retail for seven cents. Austin Kness had a different idea altogether. The Kness Catch-All Multiple Catch mousetrap, released in the 1920s, doesn't use bait at all; it was the first humane mousetrap. It went on to be a huge success.

Over the years, many other types of mousetraps have been designed, patented and sold, including the mouth mousetrap, which consists of a plastic set of jaws that snap shut on the rodent; the electric mousetrap, made up of a circuit that, when completed, zaps the catch with a lethal dose of electricity; and glue traps, which trap the rodent to either natural or synthetic adhesive until it dies of starvation, exhaustion or worse. Many mice and other small animals caught by glue traps end up gnawing off limbs or tearing skin in an attempt to escape. They've also been known to suffocate after getting their faces stuck to the cardboard or plastic that makes up the bulk of the trap.

There are bucket traps, which can be either lethal or non-lethal. Most contain liquid -- soap, water or poisonous chemicals, depending on the manufacturer -- meant to drown the mouse after it falls down a ramp. There's even a trap, invented by Rentokil Pest Control, that uses carbon dioxide to kill trapped mice and then sends an email to the owner/operator so he or she can empty it.

* * *

Out of the 4,400 mousetraps issued by the Patent Office, only about two dozen of those have made their creators any money on the U.S. market. But each of those 24 or so improvements or variations on the original spring trap design comes with an amazing. story. The Kness Catch-All? It was designed by a janitor at an Iowa school who noticed that mice were multiplying in the building, according to an article on the history of mousetraps written for Encyclopedia.com. Today, Kness Manufacturing, founded in Albia, Iowa, several generations ago, sells the Catch-All in 14 different countries.

The corporation continues to exist alongside the American entrepreneur. "By the time your mousetrap makes it to store shelves, it is likely to have been fine-tuned and compromised beyond recognition," Adler wrote in Wired. But at least, then, your mousetrap has made it to the shelves. You've built a better mousetrap, which has, since the 19th century, come to mean that you have achieved an ideal.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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