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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Better Mousetrap Fallacy


Katie Konrath, blogging at the Brazen Careerist, writes about the fallacies of imagining that if you manage to invent a better mousetrap, consumers will beat a pathway to your door. (Ref: The Brazen Careerist, 31st March 2009. It's Not Enough To Build A Better Mousetrap) She quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson's words: "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Then she points out, that many people have invented better mousetraps, and yet the most popular model is the spring loaded model which was patented in the late 1900's.

William C Hooker

The first spring-loaded mousetrap was patented on 6/11/1894 by William C Hooker. You can access patent No. 528671 at this page.

William C Hooker invented the said mousetrap with two objectives:

(a) "... to provide, for catching mice and rats, a simple, inexpensive and efficient trap adapted not to excite the suspicion of an animal, and capable of bring arranged close to a rat-hole, and of being sprung by the animal passing over it when not attracted by the bait."

(b) "... to provide a sensitive trap which may be readily set, and which will be instantly sprung at the slightest attempt of an animal to obtain the bait."

There are no references to prior art in the patent, the patent drafter referring instead to "the construction and novel combination and arrangement of parts hereinafter more fully described ..."

Describing the preferred embodiment of the patent, the patent drafter declares that "the particular construction of the catch forms a very sensitive trap ... the slightest pressure on the trigger will cause the springing of the trap."

William C Hooker's patent has been referenced by two patents, at least. The first is US patent no. 4306369 (patented on 22nd December 1981) and the second is US patent no. 7117631 (patented on 10th October 2006). From the prior art cited in both these patents, it becomes clear that the spring-loaded principle in William C Hooker's patent has been utilized again and again. Examples can be found in:

(a) Patent no. 2598205 (patented May 1952)
(b) Patent no. 2188696 (patented Jan 1940)

Definition in 2006

By 2006, US patent no. 7117631 would refer to the William C Hooker mousetrap as
"a mechanically actuated trap", in the following words:

a snap trap constructed and arranged for mechanically trapping a rodent therein, said snap trap comprising:
a base member having a spring activated bail secured to said base member for movement between a loaded position and an unloaded position, wherein said spring activated bail is biased to said unloaded position and is constructed and arranged to mechanically retain said rodent while in said unloaded position;
a trigger mounted to said base, said trigger having a bait receiving portion constructed and arranged to receive said non-perishable bait thereon;
a locking bar constructed and arranged to restrain said spring activated bail in said loaded position until said trigger is actuated;
wherein said rodent is attracted to said non-perishable bait attached to said snap trap, actuation of said trigger by said rodent releases said spring activated bail to said unloaded position, and said snap trap is adapted to mechanically retain said rodent therein.

Enduring Popularity

The question to be asked is different from the one posed by Katie Konrath. Rather than asking why new mousetrap inventions have not been commercially successful, it may be more appropriate to ask why the invention by William C Hooker has been so enduring. The popularity of its design and the existence of many designs based on it show that it is widely accepted. Perhaps it is the snapping action that so effectively kills pests -- and leads to its popularity.

US Patent no. 4127958 (patented 5th December 1978) perhaps sheds some light in its discussion on prior art:

Mouse traps have been designed in numerous ways throughout the years but by far the most popular mouse trap, at least from a commercial standpoint, is the mouse trap which has a base plate upon which is mounted a spring biased striker arm whichcan be moved from a released position to a cocked position and releasably held in the cocked position by a wire bale and a baited trigger arm which cooperate in releasing the striker arm to deliver a lethal blow to a mouse or the like when the mousetouches the trigger arm. This type of mouse trap has proved to be adequately reliable but very crude and distasteful to housewives who have the chore of removing the mouse trap or in disposing of the trap and the mouse as a whole.

New Mousetrap?

In the news very recently is a different sort of a mousetrap -- an organic mousetrap. A pitcher plant was very recently discovered to be carnivorous in nature, and capable of digesting small rodents and insects. It was named Nepenthes attenboroughii, for Sir David Attenborough, reknowned British naturist / botanist. Click here for the article (Mail Online, 18th August 2009. The Mousetrap: The carnivorous plant that eats rodents for lunch - named after Sir David Attenborough).

Obviously, this mousetrap will not become popular anytime soon. First, it survives in tropical weather -- the opportunities for commercial expansion into Western countries is just not there. Second, it looks gross. Compare with the sleek design of the spring-loaded mousetrap. Third, how effective will it be at controlling mice and rats? Plants like this survive only when there is an abundance of insects and little rodents. In other words it means that if the plant does its job (of killing mice), it ultimately withers away due to lack of food.

The Way Forward

It seems that building a better mousetrap does not necessarily guarantee instant riches in terms of a sudden surge in consumer demand for the new invention. Some products work best the way they are: Witness, in a world of speedy delivery of products and services, where fast food outlets reign, the survival and increasing popularity of "slow food restaurants" that boast "Food Just The Way Mom Cooked It" or "Home Cooked Food".

Sometimes, in the face of on-going innovation and change, the right strategy is to fall back to basics and to offer the wholesome essence of whatever it was, that made the product successful in the first place. If food is the product, make it wholesome and delicious. Make it an experience instead of just another meal to get by on. It may also be that your product or service can offer an aspect that may otherwise be neglected by other products, or service providers. Emphasizing a basic point, i.e. amplification to the point that it becomes a whole range of products, may in fact open up the market.

Perhaps if one is not seeking to deliver anything new -- technologically -- but is focussed with delivering high quality products, the product will become attractive. A person doing a job again and again, is bound to see the weaknesses in the process, and will be able to make improvements. It is from these improvements that innovations spring, which in turn give birth to patents.

In a future article, I hope to look at products that did not necessarily fit the idea of "a better mousetrap", yet were very successful as inventions.
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