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The Debunker: What Did Ralph Waldo Emerson Recommend You Invent?

by Ken Jennings

THE DEBUNKER April is National Poetry Month in the United States and Canada! Dreamed up in 1966 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a chance to celebrate poetry of all kinds and get the poetry-skeptical to read or write some of their own. But Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here this month to tell you that not everything you think you know about American poetry is historically accurate. Here's the poem he sent us for the occasion: "This is just to say / I have corrected the false poetry facts / that were in your brain / and which / you have probably / believed since high school / Forgive me / they were irresistible / so wrong / and so easy to Google."

The Debunker: What Did Ralph Waldo Emerson Recommend You Invent?

The poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was a true American original. But his Transcendentalist writings have turned out to be less influential on the American mind than his famous adage "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." Taking the quote incredibly literally, around forty thousand inventors have applied for mousetrap patents to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, waiting for the inevitable rush of investors to appear at their door. The patent office still grants about forty patents a year for mousetrap designs, for a grand total of over 4,400 patents, more than any other device.

The Debunker

The problem is that, like so many of history's most famous utterances, "Build a better mousetrap" is a misquote. By the time it was first cited, in 1889, Emerson had been dead for seven years. But the sentiment is certainly Emersonian, and that's because it's a restatement of something the "Sage of Concord" actually did note in his journal in 1855. "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell," he wrote, "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." So take note, overly literal inventors. Emerson thinks you should try your hand at chairs, knives, church organs, or, uh, crucibles, whatever they are. Mousetraps are officially played out.

Speaking of Emerson misquotes, his second-most-famous aphorism is probably the observation that "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." In fact, Emerson was not so anti-consistency as all that. He hedges his bets in the actual quote, from 1841's Self-Reliance: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Only the bad consistencies are bad, folks. Who could disagree with that?

Quick Quiz: : What mega-selling woman wrote The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the history of the London stage?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.