But what happens when the mousetrap is a horrifying, impractical death machine that fails to improve upon the classic? The world flees.
These seven mousetraps are actual issued patents (we’ve added some color, while linking to the original). They show that creating a truly disruptive innovation is a lot harder than it looks.
1) This trap is actually called the “Animal Destroyer”
How: Lures in a rat and, when it puts weight on a lever, impales it with the other end.
The breakthrough: This 1898 invention boasts about its ability to not only impale but disembowel an animal. The advantage, hinted at in the patent application, is that an animal would pass over the trap, have a hole cut in its body, and leave, and the trap would be ready for its next victim.
2) This trap will whack a mouse across the room like a Wiffle ball
How: When the rat nibbles a hanging piece of cheese, it triggers a swinging lever, whacking the creature across the room (and hopefully killing it).
The breakthrough: The big idea with this 1889 trap was that other traps smelled like dead animals, which would prevent new rats from being lured in. This inventor hoped that by whacking the rat across the room, the trap could be reused.
3) This trap was cut from a Saw movie
How: The intended use isn’t to trap the entire animal, but to impale its foot as it reaches for buried bait.
The breakthrough: It’s unclear what the advantage of this 1897 trap would have been, though it probably claimed a better success rate than competitors.
4) Force mice to walk the plank
How: The idea is to lure a mouse or rat onto a ledge, using a piece of cheese. Then gravity lets the ledge snap loose, throwing the animal into a watery grave (where, presumably, it can’t survive). The tub can be filled with water or another liquid.
The breakthrough: Patented in 1932, the device was supposed to fix the problem with springs, which, the patent claims, “not only get out of order but which add to the cost of the ordinary rat trap and which may injure fingers while setting.”
5) This gun is what all mousetraps are leading to
How: The idea is to shoot the mouse when it steps on a trigger. It’s pretty obvious.
The breakthrough: The putative advantage to this 1882 mousetrap was that it could help catch animals that burrowed into the ground, and it also told you — through the sound of a gunshot — when it needed to be reset. In the picture, the mouse is in a burrow, though it could conceivably work for any rat nest.
6) This automatic rat trap could destroy an entire species
How: This trap would lure in a rat, capture it, and then shoot it out again (number 57 is the ejector).
The breakthrough: Patented in 1915, the device could be an automatic rat trap, killing and ejecting rats so it could be ready for another victim. It could operate “continuously as long as the spring power is exerted on the resetting shaft.”
7) This trap would make a mouse a pariah in its own community
How: This is the most complex of the “better” mousetraps. The idea is to lure an animal in and then put a bell around its neck. Then when the rat returns to its nest, it will scare away its fellow rats, effectively “exterminating” them.
The breakthrough: Patented in 1908, the design hinges on the idea of rats as “sly and distrustful” enough that a bell would humanely, cheaply, and quickly rid a house of a rat colony through fear alone.
Can you really build a better mousetrap?
Some of these bizarre, vaguely sadistic traps might work better than a traditional mousetrap — but they probably wouldn’t be cheap enough to displace the old standard, and they probably wouldn’t be superior enough to justify any extra cost.
That truth about invention is why business thinker Clayton Christensen’s gospel about disruption rings true for a wide range of businesses, as well as plain old mousetraps: “Build a worse mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”