Thursday, 19 May 2011

actually, i'll beat a path to your door even if your Michael-Gove-basher isn't that good

This afternoon i've been reading about mousetraps, and in particular about an apparently-famous phrase about mousetraps attributed to Emerson:

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

I heard this for the first time a few months ago when it was referred to in a Guardian crossword clue by Brendan (22 across).  And i have a strange fascination with the phrase's wikipedia page - partly because the page's title is comically long, but also because it tells a pretty interesting story.  This more detailed account of the history of both the phrase and the mousetrap (mainly the mousetrap though) confirms that:

1. the phrase was never written down by Emerson and may well be a misquotation, first recorded seven years after his death by an admirer called Sarah Yule.  Why she happened to choose mousetraps as an example is nowhere explained - nowhere, on the internet.

2. the mousetrap has since become "far and away the most invented machine in all of American history".

There is (to my knowledge) no proof that the popularity of the phrase is directly responsible for the profusion of mousetrap designs in the US patent office - but this connection is implied in numerous places online.  There's evidence for you, right there.  And, though i obviously can't claim to be an expert, i can't think of another reason why the mousetrap should be quite as frequently invented as all that; mice can't possibly represent the biggest problem to American life, can they, so there is obviously some distortion of scale going on here.  And it does seem to make weirdly good sense to attribute this to "Emerson's" phrase - it's sort of memorable, in a way, and they do love Emerson over there.


The phrase has been criticized before.  It generated this response from Elbert Hubbard back in 1912:
No one will make a path to your door nowadays, no matter how good your mousetraps are, unless you advertise them widely and extensively and arrange to have a free lunch at the mousetrap-factory, with automobiles to meet all visitors at the railroad-station. Good mousetrap-factories have concrete walks and luring flowerbeds along the way, where hollyhocks grow lush and lusty.
But this protest was apparently in vain, and there are now over 440 mousetrap patents in the US, despite the fact that (as Hubbard appears to predict) vanishingly few have had any commercial success.  Whether or not this lack of success can be attributed to low levels of lustre among the factories' flowerbeds is a question beyond the scope of this post.  What is relevant is this: designing mousetraps remains weirdly popular.  "Emerson" has "spoken".


I just can't help wondering how much of a better place the world would be if Sarah Yule had happened to write down "Build a better cure for cancer, and the world will beat a path to your door", or "Build a better renewable energy source, and the world will beat a path to your door", or "Build a better world peace machine, and the world will beat a path to your door", or "Build a better system of government, and the world will beat a path to your door", or "Build a better Michael-Gove-basher, and the world will beat a path to your door", or "Build a better Andrew-Lansley-basher, and the world will beat a path to your door".  I could go on.  BUT I HAVE MOUSETRAPS TO BUILD

6 comments:

  1. But if she'd written down "Build a better renewable energy source, and the world will beat a path to your door" or "Build a better system of government, and the world will beat a path to your door" it would have been blatantly untrue, because the world will beat a lot harder for a solution to a relatively trivial but hugely annoying inconvenience than for one to a really significant but not so immediate problem.

    I guess in that sense a mousetrap is quite a good choice.

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  2. Ok, what if she'd written "Build a better renewable energy source, and also stick in some luring flowerbeds, where hollyhocks grow lush and lusty, and then the world will beat a path to your door, even if it's mainly because of the hollyhocks"?

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  3. Well, that wouldn't have been at all catchy.

    Perhaps this would be a valuable topic of discussion for "The Use-Mention Distinction".

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  4. Not as valuable as the use-mention distinction.

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  5. Build a better beater

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  6. Build a better world

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