When you build a better whatchamacallit

Over the years we have spent a fair amount of time thinking about our maternal grandfather's favorite proverb: ''Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.'' Grandfather was a large, dignified man in a three-piece suit with a gold pocket watch. So far as a six-year-old could tell , no mice were to be found in his meticulous Victorian house. Even if a mouse invasion had occurred, Grandfather could not be imagined, bending over and shooting his cuffs with the pearl links, while he set his better mousetrap.

As we grew older and became a socially aware - even indignant - person, we questioned the proverb on other grounds. Given all the other inventions the human race urgently needed, why this silly example of one more mousetrap? Is the proverb cynically saying: Who cares what you invent? If the new gadget is better - or just new - customers will line up to make you rich (including people who have no mice).

Clearly something beyond mice-catching was going on here.

For a long time we stuck with the interpretation that Grandfather's mousetrap is merely a random example of our national faith in the panacea of small gadgets. There seems to persist in every American heart the dream that a ''miracle'' invention - cheap, simple, obvious - exists for every known problem of daily life.

''Never wash your windows again! Rub the glass oncem with our Magic Rag. One cloth does 50 windows for life!m Only $6.98 (plus $3.75 for handling and postage). Hurry! This never-again offer is limited.''

''Attention dog owners! Is your pet slightly less obedient than Lassie? In one daym you can train your dog to do anythingm with Miracle Tooter, a high-frequency whistle that hypnotizes your animal. . . . And he'll love it as much as you will!''

Or - famous last words - your money back.

One hears in the background the voice of W.C. Fields, selling snake oil to the Old West in ''My Little Chickadee.'' Yet sensible, even disillusioned people who tell you, Nothing works any more,m while showing you the repair bills on their lemon of a car, will send away for still another three-inch battery-operated fan, guaranteed to drop the temperature 10 degrees in a 30-by- 20-foot living room - with a high ceiling.

Well, what's the harm, you ask, in dreaming of a better mousetrap, or even a single ''miracle'' gadget that plugs punctured tires, glues chairs, strips three (count 'em!) layers of old paint, and, when shaped into a belt, takes two inches off the waist in two hours?

We might have felt this way once until a brochure came across our desk, selling a ''Personal Biorhythm Certificate.'' For the special price of $9.95 (plus postage and handling), you could ''cash in on your built-in luck by using your personal Biorhythm Analysis to discover your multi-high jackpot days.'' Letters from more-than-satisfied customers, complete with snapshot and signature , told of fabled winnings at Bingo, at the race track, at Nevada gaming tables on days when the gambler's ''mental,'' ''emotional,'' and ''physical'' biorhythm cycles all coincided to peak.

It suddenly occurred to us that the ''Personal Biorhythm Certificate'' - and all the other magic ''secrets-of-life'' schemes, from self-hypnosis to zodiac charts - are the ultimate ''miracle'' gadgets in the American marketplace. For here is the hyped promise-within-the-promise of all the Short Cuts, all the Easy Solutions. Here is the falsification of the movable feast of life as Just-Add-Water-and-Stir.

At this point, we arrived at a final opinion of Grandfather's mousetrap. In dealing with gadgets and their pitchmen, we decided, we definitely feel like the mouse. We can recall a roguish uncle who - rather amazingly, considering his own erratic ways - used to say: ''Slow and steady wins the race.'' He certainly wasn't as admirable a person as Grandfather, but we like his proverb better.

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