Mousetraps, sliced bread and the mothers of invention
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, October 19, 1999)

Necessity is the mother of invention, people often say--and, like most things people often say, it's wrong. In truth, invention more frequently results from the feckless wanderings of the imagination. Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoreman and part-time philosopher, tried to set us straight on that point half a century ago. He insisted that people are most creative when playing and dreaming. Hoffer said that Mayan civilization, which lacked carts with wheels, was on its way to developing them when it was obliterated by the Spaniards; in fact, Mayans had already put wheels on a child's toy. A reading of Hoffer left me with the idea that whimsy (always assisted, of course, by greed) is the mother of invention.

Sliced bread, the symbol of inventiveness in conversation ("best thing since..."), stands as the great example. Did the world need it? Obviously not, but it seemed like such a delightful idea to Otto Frederick Rohwedder that he spent 16 years inventing a machine that both sliced bread and wrapped it to keep it fresh. One day in 1928 a bakery in Battle Creek, Michigan, turned out the first loaf. Five years later, across North America, there was more sliced than unsliced bread on the market. Only one person on the planet really needed it: Charles Strife, who had invented the spring-loaded automatic pop-up toaster in 1926. With Rohwedder's standardized slices on the market, Strife's invention began to make sense.

The truly brilliant inventor looks not for what people need but for what they can be persuaded to incorporate into their lives. Coffee drinkers were getting along fine in 1938 when Achille Gaggia worked out a piston system that forced hot water at high pressure through fine coffee grounds. Now the espresso machine is one more element in the fabric of city life. These things fit so snugly into the background that they appear to have always been there. Much of my life was lived without Post-It notes, yet now I feel deprived when I temporarily run out of them. Post-It notes were invented in 1970 by Spencer Silver, a research chemist at 3M, when a glue he was developing looked like a failure because it wouldn't stick for long. Dreaming, he imagined what possible value there might be in such a substance. 3M began selling pads of Post-It notes in 1981.

These are the items that will fascinate archaeologists who paw through our garbage dumps in the year 4,000. David Hillman and David Gibbs, two British writers, have constructed a pictorial book about modern inventions, Century Makers: One Hundred Clever Things We Take for Granted (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). They outline the origins of everything from the ball-point pen to the seat belt. Appropriately, the simplest of modern inventions, the paper clip, appeared at the dawn of the new century, in 1900, the work of a Norwegian, Johann Vaaler. His monument, near Oslo, is a giant paper clip.

In the hands of Hillman and Gibbs, we follow the course of social history and peer into odd corners of the modern mind. I was delighted to read again about George de Mestral, the Swiss who contemplated the way that the prickly seedcase burrs of plants attached themselves to his clothing. He studied their tiny, ingenious hooks, and then spent 15 years elaborately imitating nature. In the end he had Velcro. It was used mainly in aircraft at first, it was displayed in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and it went to the moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969. After a while it began showing up on everything from shoes to wallets and brassieres.

Hillman and Gibbs are the kind of writers who love nailing down a moment in history with elaborate precision. They inform us that on June 26, 1974, at 8:01 a.m., a package of Wrigley's chewing gum passed under a laser scanner at a supermarket checkout counter in Troy, Ohio. In nanoseconds, the scanner read the bar code on the package, the information went into the supermarket's data base, and the chewing gum became the first product ever logged under the Universal Product Code. I trust there's a plaque on that supermarket.

Aside from sliced bread, the mousetrap has the firmest place in popular lore. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great 19th century philosopher, is said to have remarked: "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door," surely the most influential 14-word statement ever attributed to a philosopher. Many people took it literally, and many still do. Since Emerson's day, more than 4,400 American patents have been issued for mousetraps designs, making it (as Jack Hope remarked in an article for American Heritage magazine in 1996) "far and away the most invented machine in all of American history." The patent office has 39 categories for mouse-killing devices (they include "Impaling," "Choking or Squeezing," "Constricting Noose," and "Electrocuting and Explosive"). Many new designs are submitted every year to the Woodstream Corporation of Lititz, Pennsylvania, world's largest mousetrap manufacturer. In most cases, the covering letters quote Emerson.

There's no mousetrap in Century Makers, for the excellent reason that John Mast's snap trap appeared in 1899. That little piece of pine, with its bait pedal, its tiny trigger rod, and the coil-spring killer bar that annihilates any mouse touching it, still keeps Woodstream rich. In 100 years of dedicated effort, no one has come anywhere near improving on it.

In the 1970s, however, a market survey showed that many users routinely throw it away when it works rather than cleaning and re-loading it. When that word got back to the Woodstream people, they immediately stamped "Disposable" on each trap, implying that everyone should throw it away and buy another one. The 20th century did not build a better mousetrap, but it learned to sell the old one better.

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