THE KITCHEN – “You’ve got mice,” says the guy from Stomp & Squash Pest Control. I reply, “I’ve never had mice. Roaches, yes. Every house in Texas has big roaches, although I’ve never seen one here more than six-inches long.” He assures me these little droppings are not from roaches but from mice. He leaves, to return an hour later with the latest in mice-controlling, probably a RT-678 Ultra-Zapper Mouse Macro Modifier with antenna and flashing lights. What he takes out of the bag from Wal-Mart is a Victor snap-trap. You’ve seen and maybe used them – a small, rectangle wooden plank with a bait-and-decapitate device. The mouse takes the bait and SLAM! – a heavy metal U-shaped wire, driven by a spring, makes a one-and-a-half gainer arc and comes down on said mouse. The company has been selling these exact gizmos for generations.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix – or change — it. Same for so many items we use daily. As a child I used to eat crackers from a white and blue box labeled “Premium Saltine Crackers.” I still do. Those little round glasses that held olive and pimento cheese haven’t changed either. Campbell soups and Del Monte fruit now have beer-can-like flip tops, but haven’t changed in generations. Iceland still uses the same language the Vikings used, and they say if a Viking landed on Iceland’s shores today, he would fit right in. To keep the language pure, many old words which had fallen into disuse were recycled and given new meanings in modern Icelandic. For example, the Icelandic word for electricity literally means “amber power.” Similarly, the word “telephone” originally meant “cord” and “computer” is “digit number.”
Not all changes are the better. Coca-Cola tried to change to the New Coke. The move was a disaster, and three months later Coca-Cola Classic went back on the market. Years ago my wife drove a beautiful Buick Riviera until it died, so she wanted a new one. GM improved the Riviera’s designed until it looked like leftovers from a destruction derby. The navy had the U.S, Navy Bureau of Ships, which handled ships. Then it became the Naval Ship Systems Command, then the Navy Sea Systems Command.
It still handles ships. I attended a junior high. It is now a middle school. Later, I went to the UT School of Journalism, or J-School, where we were taught journalism. Today it is The University of Texas School of Communications, Inter-Active Connectivity and Social Methodology, or something like that. It still teaches journalism.
Oh, you were asking about mouse traps. True, there are other versions – “Humane, high — voltage shock kills mouse in seconds.” “Kills 100 mice per set of batteries.” But the Victor snap-trap remains the most popular modern model. Originally patented by William C. Hooker in 1894, and modified by John Mast and others, this kind of trap is still turned out, by the tens of millions, in the same factory in Lititz, Penn., now under the brand name Victor, because it is considered to be one of the most inexpensive and effective mousetraps. Others have tried to come up with something better. More than 4,400 patents have been issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for new mousetraps, with thousands more unsuccessful applicants, making them the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history,” according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, which once featured a mouse trap exhibition and still has several on display. The Patent Office receives applications for 20 or so mousetrap patents annually, and recently has been granting about a dozen each year.
This brings up the quote: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” It is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late nineteenth century. What he actually wrote was: “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” The current version of the quotation didn’t appear until seven years after Emerson died, but he gets the credit.
A car powered by a steam engine had a brief run until the oil industry figured it could make a lot more money selling gasoline than hot water. Some good ideas just don’t take off, so to speak, like the supersonic transport (SST). It cut hours off long flights and was considered a major breakthrough in aviation. Unfortunately, it cost too much, made too much noise and used up too much fuel. The Soviet version first flew in 1968 and was retired in 1997; and the Franco-British Concorde, which first flew in 1969, was retired in 2003. There have been no more supersonic civilian aircraft, but it was a good idea. So was the multi-screen TV. You could watch up to four programs at once. No one did. The American Association of State Highway Officials adopted the current version of the red, octagonal stop sign in 1922. With little change, it is now used around the world, often with STOP in English. The linotype machine, which sets type for newspapers and magazines, came into use in the late 1800s and was still setting type in the 1980s. There has been no change in towels since the Roman baths, except today they are made in Bangladesh. Electric razors were considered a major convenience – no water, no soap, no mess — but when was the last time you used one?
Finally, we come to “The Mousetrap,” one word. It is a murder mystery play by Agatha Christie, which opened in London’s West End in 1952, and has been running continuously since then. “Mousetrap” has by far the longest initial run of any play in history, passing 25,000 performances. Why? Well, no one could come up with anything better.
PS: Still no mice, dead or alive.
Ashby is better at firstname.lastname@example.org