Better Mouse Trap

The term "Better mouse trap", referring to a useful invention, is often attributed to Thomas Edison in a phrase such as "If you build a better mouse trap the world will beat a path to your door." Extensive research (15 minutes on the web) fails to uncover Edison actually having made this pronouncement. However, a fairly good history of the concept is presented by American Heritage in Oct. 1996 (A Better Mouse Trap; Jack Hope; American Heritage, Oct. 1996) where the more accurate quotation is presented:
"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."
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Journal, 1855

While Hope's article focuses on patents and mouse-traps, which provide a delightful insight to the great engineering tradition of inviting things, it misses the main point of Emerson's insight. This is captured in the term "common fame" ... which today we might call "reputation". A concept we too-easily lose in our efforts of re-invention, and even in the highest impact potential creations.

I've pointed to the idea of "social capital", and who you know as being important. But perhaps more important in many ways is "who knows you?" Once you become known, for better or worse, you have a reputation. Folks will point others in your direction in areas where this is good (they will "beat a path to your door") and of course it can work the other way as well. So building a good reputation is fairly critical, and in today's world, your 'web profile' is essential -- but that is a topic for a future blog.

How do you build a reputation? .... be visible! Consider how you gain credibility in the Open Source world .... be active in the review and FAQ interactions ... let folks see your capability and commitment, then they will pay attention to your contributions. In the academic world this is accomplished by publications, peer review and most critically conferences where you meet and interact with those other persons. In industry you need to take equal interest in your reputation, but it is not as clearly understood. The same processes apply --- be visible in interacting with peers -- online, in local events (IEEE chapter meetings), -- conferences, etc. "Make a name for yourself" --- without it, a better mouse trap won't really trigger the path development to your door.

No comments:

Post a Comment