"If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, as reported by Mrs. Sarah S. B. Yule

Emerson had it all wrong.

If you make a better mousetrap, chances are you will be completely ignored by the public at large and destined to labor in obscurity.Such, at least, was the fate of many a hopeful inventor who took the philosopher's advice literally.

Consider poor Cornelius Henry, a New York inventor who, in 1878, filed a patent for a "Combined Mouse-Trap and Box for Paper Collars and like Articles." Henry noticed that "in travelling, it frequently happens that the traveller is annoyed by a mouse eating in his room and about the furniture. In order to rid himself of the nuisance, it is only necessary to remove the collars in the box, bait the hook . . ." and so forth. After collaring the mouse, the traveler simply dumped it into the slop bucket and returned his collars to the box, forgetting, as best he could, the previous occupant. Needless to say, the world did not beat a path to Henry's door, preferring instead to stay in better hotels.

A rather different fate befell the invention of one John Mast of Lancaster, Pa., who wisely ignored Merson's dictum. While hs contemporaries were growing old and lonely waiting for the world to come to them, Mast went out and did some market research. Legend has it that, at a dinner party one evening, he struck up a conversation with a group of ladies who challenged him to invent a mousetrap that wouldn't get caught in their long skirts. With that mandate -- a directive straight from the consumer, the ultimate source of his much-anticipated profits -- Mast set to work.

What he came up with was the now-familiar snap-trap -- a rectangular piece of wood with a spring mechanism that was triggered when the mouse went for the bait, whereupon the intruder's back was promptly broken. The trap was easy to bait and set, and so inexpensive that the user could simply toss it, victim and all, into the slop bucket after it had done its job.

Mast's mousetrap appeared around 1895 and was a smash -- in every sense of the world. In 1907, he sold his thriving company to Oneida Community Ltd., originally a religious group in upper New York State that supplemented its farming income by making silverware and steel traps.In 1925, three of the company's executives bought the mousetrap business from Oneida, and renamed it Animal Trap Co. of America. Today it is a division of Woodstream Corp., a $43-million company located in Lititz, Pa. Woodstream still makes the modern version of Mast's snap-trap, called the Victor Mouse Trap. According to spokesman John Reid, the company produces as many as 10 million mousetraps in a good year. (A good year, he says, is one in which the seasons change abruptly, "getting the rodent population moving.")

While Lititz was slowly but surely becoming "the mousetrap capital of the world," other inventions continued trying to make their way from drawing board to drawing room. Around 1930, for example, there appeared the Electrocutor: The Electric Mouse Trap -- a black plastic device with electrical conductors that, when baited and plugged in, was ready for business. The verdict: fried mice. The directions in the box cautioned that any dust on the floor might insulate the victim's little feet, and suggested a solution that also made for a tidier execution. A wet cloth placed under the trap would allow the mouse to dampen its paws. Then, when it went for the bait, it would be sure to receive a jolt that would send it catapulting across the kitchen, leaving the trap "ready for its next victim."

One would suppose that the folks in Lititz observed such ludicrous experimentation with amusement, secure in the knowledge that theirs was the best of all possible mousetraps. Not so. Haunted by Emerson's maxim, Chester M. Woolworth, when he was president and chairman of Animal Trap Co. of America, commissioned an industrial designer to come up with an even better mousetrap. The finished product was a sleek, brown plastic gadget that looked something like an upside-down bathtub. It had a spring that snapped upward and strangled the mouse when it nibbled the cheese (or peanut butter or gumdrops, said by some to be the preference of discerning mice). The trap was big enough to conceal a good-sized mouse (except for the tip of its tail, which hung out), so that the squeamish householder need never lay eyes on the victim. And perhaps best of all, the trap was reusable -- press down on the spring from the top and neatly drop the mouse into the garbage pail.

But the Little Champ, as it was affectionately named, gathered dust on the schelves of hardware stores while the tried-and-true snap-trap continued to snag customers. Why? In a 1962 publication of the American Management Associations, Woolworth mused over the plight of the Little Champ and admitted that "we're still not sure.Perhaps it didn't look like a mousetrap. Maybe it was priced wrong. The old traps cost about 7? [the Little Champ sold for about 12?]. Maybe it was the disposal feature. Many women just throw away the 7? trap -- with the mouse in it."

Indeed, this last guess proved to be the answer. More recent market research shows that "the homeowner will, often as not, throw the trap out with the rodent even though it could be used over again," says John Reid. In which case, the old Victor snap-trap suited the consumer's purposes just fine -- it was cheap, it was simple, and it didn't look like a designer mousetrap, so no one felt any qualms about tossing it out.

What did Woolworth learn? "You must beat a path to the customer's door to find out what he needs and wants. . . . Stunning innovation and brilliantly designed new products are only part of the answer. . . . Fortunately," Woolworth concluded," Mr. Emerson made his living as a philosopher -- not as a company president."