By Published on .

"If a man can . . . make a better mousetrap than his neighbor . . . the world will make a beaten path to his door." So said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sorry, Ralph, but you were wrong. Forty-six years after you died, the better mousetrap was invented, and no path-beating occurred. In 1928, Chester M. Woolworth offered the world a much-improved mousetrap. It sold for 12 cents. The price of the older, less effective mousetrap, however, was only 5 cents. The better mousetrap failed.

We continue to buy the same mousetrap that was used during Ralph Waldo Emerson's lifetime, even though dozens of superior mousetraps have since been invented. We buy the old ones because they work. We see no need for improvement.

Yet the power of Emerson's promise continues to lure thousands of inventors, each of whom stares dreamily at the ceiling and whispers, "The world will beat a path to my door."

It has been more than 140 years since Emerson painted his image of fame and recognition, and although his promise proved false, you and I continue to recite the Better Mousetrap Myth because it is our hope that we might someday actually find the world beating a path to our door.

If nothing else, Emerson's maxim teaches us that words that conjure a pleasing image in the mind will live forever. Suppose Emerson had said, "If you build a better mousetrap, there is a chance you will be able to sell it, but it will take a lot of hard work, and your mousetrap cannot cost more than the mousetrap it replaces." Would we have remembered this bit of wisdom for as long as we have? Forget about a better mousetrap. Concentrate on better words.

Let me amplify the point. The actual adage that launched the Mousetrap Myth reads thus: "If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."

Hundreds of sources readily confirm Ralph Waldo Emerson to be the author of these words, but no one can name the year he wrote them or the publication in which they appear. This is because the quote was actually penned 28 years after Emerson died -- by an ad writer named Elbert Hubbard. Trying to explain how his manufacturing company was able to attract large numbers of visitors to the tiny village of East Aurora, N.Y., Hubbard admits that he wrote the mousetrap epigram, then "gave it specific gravity by attributing it to one Ralph Waldo Emerson."

Was Hubbard a liar? In my opinion, no. He merely told the truth a little more powerfully than what was completely accurate. You'll find the following on page 528 in volume 8 of Emerson's journal, February 1855: "Common Fame; I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. 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."

Hubbard said what Emerson said. Only Hubbard said it better. We remember the words of Hubbard because, unlike Emerson, Hubbard used verbs that are visually active: "write," "preach," "make"; he gave us images that are clear: "book," "sermon," "mousetrap"; and his promise of benefit was memorable: ". . . the world will make a beaten path to his door."

Emerson's original statement is known to only the most diligent of researchers because it is neither active, clear nor memorable: "I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must."

Emerson's images are cluttered and unfocused: corn, wood, boards, pigs, chairs knives, crucibles, church organs; and the promise of benefit is soft, stumbling to its end with a qualifier: ". . . you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

Rather than closing as Emerson does, with the image of the house in the woods, Hubbard, an ad writer, leads us through his woods a bit earlier, so that he might close with the grand gesture -- that unforgettable image of the whole world beating a path to our door. Emerson may have had a profound idea, but it took the refinements of an ad writer to cause it to live forever in the imaginations of men.

Adapted from The Wizard of Ads: Turning Words into Magic and Dreamers into Millionaires, by Roy H. Williams, Bard Press, Austin, Texas, 1998. Williams is

Most Popular
In this article: