David Lias

David Lias

Editor’s note: I decided to dust off this four-year-old column and republish it so there’s one less thing to worry about during this very busy holiday season. I should note that Cindy and I threw in the towel last year and are in the early stages of using an artificial tree rather than a real one. The transition has been remarkably easy. Merry Christmas!

“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.”

In other words: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Both of these quotes have been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. There's a good chance that Emerson never expressed these thoughts at all. In fact, it is unclear who deserves credit for this phrasing that’s commonly used today.

The phrase has turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation and is frequently taken literally, with more than 4,400 patents issued by the United States 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 Wikipedia.

The popular modern snap-trap version of the mousetrap was invented in Lititz, Pennsylvania, by John Mast in 1899, several years after the Emerson misquote had become popular.

Those of us of a certain age can remember a time when that snap-trap version of a mousetrap was the only option available to try to rid homes and workspaces of pesky mice that sought the warm place to hang out when the weather turned cold each winter.

Today, there indeed are better mousetraps out there to battle any small, four-legged unwanted critters attempting to become uninvited houseguests. You can buy the equivalent of miniature mice hotels these days from any hardware store. Set them in a room where you know the pests likely will visit; the bait inside the “hotel” will lure them inside, and they'll check in, spring the trap and never check out.

It's easy-peasy. No longer does one have to smear peanut butter on the tripping device of those old-fashioned hair-trigger mousetraps and then hope to delicately “set” them without unwittingly setting them off and painfully catching one's fingers rather than a mouse in the spring-driven steel mechanism.

That had been my fate, or more accurately, my fingers' fate, for more times than I'd like to count before someone invented better options for all of us to use.

The “build a better mousetrap” saying came to mind last weekend as Cindy and I began our yearly ritual of putting up our Christmas tree.

We're both believers in having a real tree meaning that, yes, I suppose that means we endorse the practice of cutting down young evergreen trees in the prime of their young lives so that they can spend a few weeks in the living room of our house every December.

In no way do Cindy and I believe that those who place plastic, lifeless, man-made artificial trees in their homes are choosing the easy way out when it comes to celebrating the holiday. Every Christmas, I guess, “fake” tree owners simply go to their closets, pull out boxes and “build” their trees by assembling the boxes' various parts together into things that resembles Christmas trees, all ready to be stood in preferred corners of your homes to be adorned with decorations.

I'm not here to begin a debate about real Christmas trees being better than artificial ones. I'm here to talk about something else, although, you have to admit, artificial tree owners miss out on so much. Like standing out in the cold at the place that sells trees, trying to find the “perfect” one, knowing that such a creature, er, former living plant, doesn't exist.

They're too short or too tall, you can usually tell which side they spent their time laying horizontally in the truck they were in while being shipped here because that side is a bit smushed, but you buy the tree anyway, even with its flattened side and slightly crooked trunk because once you haul it home (or, lucky for us, buy it from a place that actually delivers the tree to your house) and get it inside where it's warm it will open up and look just fine.

Like I said, I'm not here to talk about that. So … where was I? Oh yeah, yearly rituals and mousetraps.

As I was saying, the “build a better mousetrap” saying popped in my head last weekend shortly after our “real” tree was delivered. Cindy, caught up in the spirit of making our home festive for the holidays, already had the tree stand in place in our living room. In fact, while I was preoccupied with watching something important on TV (football), she hauled the tree into the living room herself.

That's where my services were finally needed. Together, we lifted the tree, stood it in the stand, and I held it while she screwed the … well, I guess they're screws … thingys in the stand that, when tightened, clamp the tree tightly, holding it in place. Straight and true.

It's never that easy, naturally. The floor by the windows where we like to display our tree is uneven in our old house, and I'll admit I'm not the best at trying to hold a tree at a 90 degree angle to the floor while battling gravity and forces of physics being applied to the tree by my wife who, at the crucial moment, is laying on the uneven floor under the tree trying to get the stand adjusted properly so the tree will stand straight.

It was a somewhat lengthy process this year. We did take a break in our efforts last weekend. The tree was standing at the time and appeared to be leaning, but we both convinced ourselves that it all might be an optical illusion because of the smushiness factor that I described earlier. We convinced ourselves that once the tree opened up a bit, it would look fine.

Of course, it didn't look fine, so like tag-team wrestlers, we attacked the tree again with me trying to hold it straight while Cindy worked the various mechanisms in the stand. I'm happy to report, as I type this on my laptop at our kitchen table, that our tree is up, decorated and filling our house with that great evergreen smell of Christmas.

Our Christmas tree stand, when first brought out the closet every December, looks like a probe that NASA would launch to land on Mars. It's round and solid with a sturdy flat bottom designed not to tip and the screw thingys that Cindy tightens look like probes and antenna that would send data and pictures and radio signals back to Earth from the Martian service.

Our high-tech (in appearance, at least) stand hasn't stopped me from googling to see if there's anything better available. I've so far found a stand that has, of all things, a foot pedal. You put the tree in, and then pump the pedal with your foot to tighten its mechanisms around the trunk.

It's intriguing, but there's no guarantee that one's tree will be standing straight once you’re done pumping the pedal.

In the spring, the University of South Dakota Beacom School of Business hosts high school and college entrepreneurship teams at the Beacom School of Business Invent-to-Innovate (i2i) Business Model Competition.

So, hey – all of you young entrepreneurs out there struggling to come up with an idea for next year's competition – have you considered building a better Christmas tree stand?

I will beat a path to your door.

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