While many women during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century busied themselves in the textile mills of New England, Margaret Ethridge Knight used her creative genius in an effort to invent a number of devices which would increase productivity, and in some cases save lives.
Born in York, Maine on February 14, 1838, Margaret was the daughter of James Knight and Hannah Teal and grew up with brothers Charlie and Jim. Having little schooling, Margaret showed a penchant for inventing when she was still a very young child. Rather than playing with the traditional dolls, Margaret spent her time creating things. “I couldn't see the sense in coddling bits of porcelain with senseless faces. I was fascinated with jackknives, wood and tools.” Utilizing a sketchbook she labeled My Inventions, along with her father’s toolbox, “Mattie” was capable of creating practically anything; once boasting the sleds and kites she built were the envy of the boys in town.
Margaret was 10 when her father died and a short time later, her brothers went to work at a local cotton mill. When she was 12, Margaret began to work there as well in an effort to help support the family. During her shift one day, Mattie witnessed an accident. A shuttle on one of the looms fell off and in the process, its steel tip severely injured one of the workers. The youth later died as a result of his injuries. Prior to the accident, a number of individuals had made several unsuccessful attempts to increase the safety level of the looms.
After evaluating the cause, Margaret went to work on her first real invention in an effort to resolve the situation. The device she created, a covered shuttle, would automatically stop the machine’s operation if anything became caught in it. By the time Margaret was a teenager, her invention had been put to use in a number of mills and is still in use today. "Success with this shuttle increased my desire to study machinery, so that I may say it led to all my other inventions." Due to her lack of knowledge at the time regarding patents, Mattie never received any payment for her invention. At the same time, she walked away with the satisfaction of knowing she had helped to save lives.
Following the Civil War, Margaret moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and began working in a paper bag plant. Unlike the bags of today, these bags were more like envelopes. Margaret sensed they would be much easier to pack if the bottoms were flat, and thus she went to work to find a way to design just such a bag.
As she toyed with plans for a machine that would make such bags, she eventually sketched the design for one. Within six months, Margaret created a working model of her device from wood, capable of assembling the bags with the turn of a crank. Though "rickety" at first, it pumped out more than 1,000 bags, automatically folding and gluing the bottom of each; thereby creating the flat-bottom paper bags now used in grocery stores and numerous other industries. To apply for a patent, however, Margaret needed a working model made of iron. Thus, she moved to Boston in an effort to acquire the help of two machinists.
For a good story to be a great story, among the characters that are part of it, there must be a villain as well as a hero/heroine. Knight’s story contains such a character. In this case, the part of the villain is played by a man by the name of Charles Annan. An employee of the machine shop where Knight’s iron model was being built, Annan spied on the woman hired to create Knight’s prototype. He successfully stole the design, tweaked it slightly and then patented the device.
Following his “success”, Charles faced a very determined young woman who was not afraid to fight for what was rightfully hers. Taking Charles to court, Margaret demonstrated the same level of vigor she used creating her inventions. With the help of witnesses from three different machine shops, she successfully filed a patent-interference lawsuit which countered Annan’s argument that a woman was not capable of designing such an innovation. Offering the court the necessary evidence, Margaret was able to prove she did indeed design the machine; thus on July 11, 1871, 30-year-old Margaret was awarded Patent #116,842.
With patent now in hand, Margaret established the Eastern Paper Bag Company with a business man in Hartford, Connecticut and began receiving royalties. As soon as the machine was developed and put in operation, it had a major impact on the paper industry as flat-bottomed paper bags made their debut into retail markets across the country. In New York alone, department stores such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor’s soon realized how they could utilize these new flat-bottom bags for customers’ purchases, rather than wrapping the items with paper and twine; thus the satchel-bottom bags quickly became a choice material for carrying and transporting goods.
In Anne L. MacDonald’s book Feminine Ingenuity, she stated Knight’s paper bag machine “replaced the work of 30 people” and “attracted extraordinary attention in Europe and America.” Presently, there are in excess of 7,000 machines in operation throughout the world which produce flat-bottom paper bags, commonly referred to as “stand-on-shelf” or “self-opening sacks” (S.O.S). Among the major suppliers of these machines are H.G. Weber & Co., which is headquartered in Kiel, Wisconsin, along with two firms in Germany, one in France and another in Japan.
Today’s machines produce between 200 and 650 sacks per minute. The industries which consume the largest number of S.O.S. bags include grocery and department stores, fast food restaurants and bakeries. They are also found in lunch rooms and on store shelves for consumer to purchase bulk foods such as coffee.
This machine would not be Knight’s only accomplishment. Over the course of her life, Margaret received 20+ patents, in addition to conceiving upwards of 100 various inventions. Numbered among them were a box-making machine (which is on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.), a numbering machine and a machine which produces window frames and sashes.
In 1871, Queen Victoria presented Margaret the Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honour. It now hangs as a part of a collection of awards at the Curry Cottage located at 287 Hollis Street in Framingham, Massachusetts. One of the plaques recognizes her as the “first woman awarded a U.S. patent”. This statement, however, is wrong. The first woman to receive a patent was Hannah Wilkinson. She invited two-ply thread and received her patent in 1793. Although Margaret was not the first woman to actually receive a patent, she went on to become one of the most productive female inventors, having 27 patents to her name.
At the age of seventy, she was still working twenty hours a day as an inventor. Margaret Knight was 76 when she died on October 12, 1914 in Framingham, Massachusetts. When she died, within the text of her obituary was the phrase, “woman Edison.” In 2006, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
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“The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”