Build A Better Mousetrap… But It Better Be Better!

As creative problem solvers, we like to “think outside the box,” and we should strive for that. But what happens if your strange idea isn’t kept in check by cooler heads? There is a real danger — especially if you work alone — to falling so in love with your idea, that you lose sight of what it really means to be better.

Case in point. The self-parking car. Well, not the modern variant, which seems to work pretty well. But did you know that the self-parking car was invented in the 1930s and used an extra fifth wheel? Hard to imagine? See the video below. History tells us that the idea didn’t catch on.

Car Crazy

Cars seem to have a long track record for off-the-wall ideas. Cadillac sold Louie Mattar a brand new 1947 vehicle. By 1952, he had souped it up so that it drove non-stop for 6,320 miles — the distance from San Diego to New York and back. The car had to be refueled from a moving gas truck three times, which is good for airplanes but maybe a bit much for a car. It was only three times because it was towing a trailer that contained, among other things, 230 gallons of gas along with oil and water. But that isn’t the real oddball idea. The car had a stove, a fridge, a washing machine and a toilet. Yup, no need to stop for bathroom breaks if you have a toilet and a 50-gallon water tank onboard. The car could be maintained while moving including changing or inflating a tire.

Of course, there was Ford’s nuclear car which wouldn’t need extra fuel.


It seems like a lot of times these “great ideas” aren’t really bad concepts, but it’s just that the execution falls short, like for the self-parking car. Another example would be the car-mounted record player. If you think record players don’t work well in hot bumpy cars, then you are correctly thinking in the box.

But someone at Chrysler in 1956 thought the “Hiway Hi-FI” was just the thing. The record player ejected from the dashboard and played custom records that stored an hour of music on a platter the size of a standard 45 record. The AutoVictrola was a later attempt that took a stack of standard 45 records. Norelco/Philips had a similar system that could almost pass for a CD player if a CD player took a 45 record.

Lesson Learned

If you ever took a class in fiction writing, there is a saying you might have heard: “Be cruel to your characters.” In other words, no one wants to read a novel about a woman with a perfect life who gets everything she wants and is very happy. You want to read about a guy who gets taken hostage or a princess dealing with an evil stepmother, or… you get the idea.

For our ideas, we should be cruel to them, too. Seek outside advice and make sure you put all the cards on the table. If you ask your friend, “Would you like a cell phone that lasts a week before you have to charge it?” You’ll get an affirmative answer. Just make sure you know they have to carry a rickshaw-like device festooned with solar panels everywhere they go.

You might argue: “But my idea is so visionary that people can’t see how truly wonderful it is until they experience it.” Maybe. Many people thought no one needed a computer in their home. But Honeywell thought they could sell their 316 computer for people to use in their kitchens. We still don’t really have “recipe computers,” and what did drive computers into people’s homes were things that Honeywell didn’t think of at that time. So sometimes you need not only the right idea, but at the right time, and for the right purpose. Ask yourself critically about all three of these factors.

After all, we finally got virtual meetings and robots, but not in 1927. We are still waiting for our flying car to arrive.

22 thoughts on “Build A Better Mousetrap… But It Better Be Better!

  1. We did make many CD players that played in the car but also initially skipped pretty much anytime the car moved much or hit a bump. So we instead installed a cache in the CD player that assumed that the car didn’t move 24/7 and it generally resolved that issue, at least eventually. Sort of like how some solid state drives now can quickly send data but then slow down dramatically when the cache empties.

    Also that fifth wheel looks like it would work in a butcher shop. No wonder that one didn’t catch on. Instead we can now use machine vision and “automatic” parking which is still technically slower and doesn’t let you just pivot in. Though presumably much, much safer.

    How many times did people need to park like that anyway and did it justify the need for it? Inventions need to be a balancing act of what it does, what it takes to produce and how much value it creates. What that one does is slightly helpful but only in certain circumstances. It was a fair bit expensive to produce, setting aside liability and it did not create that much value as customers were not going to massively value a car with this over one without. So no huge surprise that it was novel but not a huge increase in sales either.

    Surely this website is able to examine ways millions of people have worked over many decades to figure out how to make improvements and upgrades and new technology and figure out details and invent new things and outright upgrade existing inventions, right? It’s quite an iterative process after all.

    Does it all have to be traditional all the time to actually produce a new invention that is actually helpful for humanity? What does that even mean exactly?

  2. I remember a concept car from the eighties, which looked like a barrel, that is, its outline as seen from above was circular. The wheels could be turned in such a way that they aligned with its circumference, which allowed the car to turn around literally in place or drive into parking places perpendicularly to the road. Of course, it was not very spacious, but I would say comparable with today’s ‘mini’ cars.

  3. I submit Thomas Midgley as the worst inventor of all time, precisely because he kept making things that were, in some cases, incredibly influential but had just unbelievably bad side effects.
    He was a primary reason we put tetraethyllead in gasoline: he was not only a director for the Tetra Ethyl Lead corporation, he personally did tons of bench chemistry on validating the amount that they could put in gasoline to optimize its properties, so much so that he repeatedly gave himself lead poisoning. Even better from the standpoint of being the worst inventor ever, he clearly knew lead was poisonous and knew exactly what it was doing to him, and he knew there were other, much less toxic, chemicals they could add to gasoline to reduce its tendency to detonate, but they couldn’t be patented. He optimized lead additives for their profit potential.
    Then he helped invent Freon, and again, did significant work in the lab to characterize it.
    Then he did some work with organometallic chemistry, probably to try to reduce his lead poisoning symptoms, and then after he got polio, he invented a machine to help lift him out of bed in the morning and it malfunctioned and strangled him to death.
    As an inventor, he lived a life that screwed up so many people’s lives and so much of the earth’s environment, I don’t think anyone else even comes close, and all through creations that did exactly what they were supposed to. Kinda admirable, and so over the top it’d be unrealistic in a work of fiction.

    1. Yep. The saga of TEL alone is infuriating. They knew the whole time what they were doing, did everything they could to shut up and smear detractors, and pushed it for decades. When other solutions existed but were simply less profitable. And got off pretty much scott free (well if you don’t count that they got lead poisoned too, like Midgley). Surely we have gotten over this tendency in our more advanced modern science you say? No we haven’t! We still do it constantly!

      1. That’s the part that’s so depressing to me. We keep talking about systemic issues that threaten lots of people and saying “but surely people will realize the problem they’re facing and find a way to address it, right?” and meanwhile Midgely was sitting there in his lab cranking out chemicals that he knew for a fact were hurting himself so badly he had to take multi year sabbaticals just to continue working. Like the slow motion version of a suicide bomber.

    2. But TEL alternatives are a myth. Back then there was nothing coming even close to its properties and without it we’d be stuck with 4.0L engines developing at best 60 HP. Today we mostly don’t use leaded because around early 2000s automotive industry managed to develop ways to forge super-tough iron alloys for valve seats. Although I still use leaded benzine it in my 1991 1st gen Miata because otherwise engine would be totally screwed in less that 30k miles. Also electronic fuel injection became possible which lets ECU add benzine in small, precise doses to sustain “flame cushion” instead of rapid detonation.

      1. Leaded gas was banned in the US by 1996, and unleaded gasoline had mostly displaced leaded around the country by the mid-to-late 1980s. And no fuel-injected car I’ve ever owned (80s and up) added benzine to the fuel charge, so I’ve no idea where that comes from. Also, an NA Miata engine will have no problem running unleaded fuels – in point of fact, it was designed for it. Unless you’ve done significant racing modifications, that is, and even then, unleaded high-octance racing fuel would be preferred.

        1. They’ve effectively stopped selling ethanol free gas now.

          The light sweet crude they built their business model is mostly gone anyhow. Octane boosters have always been about letting them sell crap gas. TEL, ethanol and MTBE are all there to let the oil companies get away with cheap refining processes.

          MTBE didn’t ‘contaminate wells’. It was a taste-able taggant of wells that had long been contaminated by gasoline. That’s why it was banned.

      2. In a search for evidence that lead helps valve seats the only reports I found were from TEL makers. TEL was a cheap substitute for octane and that seems to be about the limit of it’s capability.

        1. I’ve seen pictures of several different engine designs from the 1960s that did have pretty severe valve seat wear if you ran them on unleashed fuel. And also looked firsthand at cylinder heads from this era that racked up a lot of miles on unleaded without problems. For example, Chrysler ‘s B-series V8 has serious issues while their slant six from the same time doesn’t.

          This was a case where the problem is real, but can be solved multiple ways. You can either deal with it by the fuel formulation or the engine designs. The engine changes aren’t major, but the designers would need to know they can’t count on lead protecting the valves. Chrysler had no real trouble updating the B series for unleaded in the early 1970s, although it added a couple extra steps in manufacturing.

      3. Baloney. My 1991 Miata did 200k miles with only sporadic preventative maintenance from my college aged self. It is a super reliable car, and not just mine. That particular vehicle only died when someone rear ended me on the freeway, … And someone else bought the engine and body to build an autocrosser.

      4. My wife has a ’92 NA in the garage right now with 230,000 miles worth of unleaded pump gas through it that has never had the head off. She still sees 7000 rpm every time it goes outside and takes us to The Dragon and back every year. Also the fact that under the gas door there’s a sticker that reads “UNLEADED ONLY” leads me to believe Mazda expected it to last longer than 30,000 miles without leaded gasoline.

      5. Modern integrated circuits would be impossible without mining natural Silichondrium deposits for the atomically perfect wafers needed.

        Except that Silichondrium isn’t a real thing, it’s a thing I just made up to illustrate a point. If naturally perfect silicon crystals were found in nature, we’d have tech companies lobbying to bulldoze bird sanctuaries and archaeological sites to access it because there’s simply no other feasible way to provide the semiconductors our society needs to exist.

        We’re clever, for apes at least. We can usually find a way around technological hurdles. Do you think without TEL our society just would’ve stagnated in the 1920s forever? We would’ve found another solution. Maybe we would’ve developed better forging techniques sooner, who can say?

        TEL never needed to happen. If the cost of it is that cars would’ve been held back 40 years, I’d hardly shed a tear. Maybe it would’ve given us a chance to skip the part of urbanization where everything is built around individual transport…

        1. The winner of WWII would have been the nation that used leaded avgas.

          Maybe not, one side having a leader spun on meth. But Stalin was no saner, so the possibility exists.

          There is still lead in some avgas.

          Reading your last paragraph. Oh, you’re one of those…f off then.

  4. I’m wondering who is going to make a version of the Honeywell 316! It was pretty cool, and from what I saw it was based on a DEC design (for the processor). But the terminal was pure Jetsons.

    That said, Logan’s Run did combine internet dating with a Star Trek transporter, so you have that.

  5. Another screwball vehicle option was DeSoto’s steering wheel mounted cigarette dispenser. But you still had to light the coffin nail. Pres-a-lite made a cigarette dispenser that mounted to the steering column and plugged into the lighter socket. Press the button and it’d kick out an already lit and ready to suck on ciggy.

  6. Another concept from writing that would apply to us would be “kill your darlings”. In other words, be prepared to throw away concepts that you love, if upon closer inspection they have serious flaws. I’ve found that to be a difficult thing to do, but being self critical of my work can save me time and embarrassment in the long run.

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