LARRY PENKAVA COLUMN: Where is Tom Edison when we really need him?

Somebody ought to invent a better way.

Larry Penkava

I know I’ve said that any number of times, usually in a fit of frustration.
One of the most recent was a few months ago when Ginny and I were stuck in a massive traffic jam on I-95. It took us three hours to get the five miles to the scene of the problem, a burned-out truck on the big bridge over Lake Marion at Santee, South Carolina. I couldn’t understand why someone hadn’t invented a detour around the accident.

Over the millennia, inventors have made life better for us humans. But sometimes those improvements lead to other problems — like miles-long backups on interstate highways. Which just means inventors have a rosy future.

I once interviewed a friend who, with another guy, designed plans for a lawnmower whose wheels adjusted sideways to accommodate steep banks. They had the designs ready for sending to the Patent Office. I haven’t heard the results.

And there are others I’ve known who thought up better ways to do things. I have yet to hear that any of them have made millions from their inventions.

A few years ago at a public event, I was eating a cupcake. I told the person I was sitting with that somebody ought to invent a cupcake with an edible cup.

She got excited and told me I should pursue that and make a fortune. But alas, I’m neither an inventor nor a baker. So, I still have to delicately pull the cup from the cake and toss the paper.

It’s common lore that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous essayist from the late 1800s, said, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Later, it was learned that an Emerson admirer claimed, after his death, that she had heard him say the phrase, or something like it.

Ah, the mousetrap. According to, it’s the most invented device in American history. Way back in 1996, the US Patent Office had granted more than 4,400 mousetrap patents, 95 percent to amateur inventors.

And the world’s largest producer of mousetraps, the Woodstream Corporation in Lititz, Pennsylvania, continues to get proposals from mousetrap inventors. Said Joseph Bumsted, formerly with Woodstream, “They’re handwritten. They’re garbled. And their traps are almost always impractical, or unsellable. … But all of them remember that supposed quotation from Emerson. They feel it was written just for them, and they recite it as if that in itself were the reason for Woodstream to buy their ideas!”

The Woodstream trap is the fundamental snap trap, created in 1899 and patented in 1903 by John Mast of Pennsylvania, and still manufactured by the Woodstream Corporation.
What those supposed “better mousetrap” inventors don’t seem to realize is that the better mousetrap has already been invented. I’ve used the fundamental 1899 trap — produced by Woodstream — baited it with peanut butter, and nailed the offending rodent within a day or two.

Speaking of famous inventions, have you made a sandwich lately? Did you use sliced bread?

What’s the saying? “The best thing since sliced bread?”

The first automatically sliced commercial loaves were produced on July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, using the machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler. We would have had sliced bread sooner but Rohwedder’s prototype and blueprints were destroyed by fire in 1917.

One of the first national bakers to use Rohwedder’s invention was Wonder Bread in 1930, according to By then, Americans were buying their bread rather than baking their own, and “squeezable softness” was equated with freshness.

Which just shows that we Americans were just as gullible in the early 20th century.

My first sliced bread hero was Merita, because it was a major sponsor of “The Lone Ranger” TV show. Merita bread and “The William Tell Overture,” also known as the Lone Ranger theme song, were superstars in my youth.

You can look up the most important inventions in human history, the first listed as the wheel, followed by tools. Others could be called “the usual suspects,” including the automobile, the steam engine and the airplane. Less glamorous were concrete, petrol and nails.

But we need all these inventions to make our lives better.

Now, could someone please invent a ____ (you fill in the blank)?

Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189 or