Margaret Knight is not a name most people are familiar with, but she was a strong-willed woman who understood the value of her intellectual property in a time when women were highly discouraged from innovation.
Born in Maine in 1838, Margaret was raised by her mother after her father passed away at an early age. Even as a young child, Margaret's proficiency and interest in inventing were making themselves known - she was the envy of the neighborhood with her hand-made kites and winter sleds.
Her First Foray into Innovation
After moving to New Hampshire, Knight began working in a local textile mill; at age 12, she saw an accident take place while working, so she got to work and produced her first widely-used invention. Steel-tipped pieces of the looms could easily come free and fly quickly into an employee - usually a child laborer. Margaret's invention halted the machine when anything went wrong, significantly increasing the safety of workers across industries. While she did not file a patent nor receive compensation for this invention, she recognized its utility and took notice of how her intellectual property could impact business.
In 1867, Knight moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she began working at a paper bag factory. Assigned the tedious and thankless task of hand-folding paper bags, she wondered if she could create an automated system to improve the efficiency of folding bags. At the time, flat-bottomed paper bags were considered more artisanal goods, as they were each handmade and required a fair amount of labor and resources to produce.
Knight's machine folded and cut the paper automatically, making flat-bottomed paper bags easy to come by; an updated version of her machine is still being used today!
The Fight for Her Rights
This time understanding the value of her invention, Margaret sought a patent, but was beaten to the punch by a man who attempted to steal her idea. Charles Annan acquired the plans during its development. This was a time when about 10% of primary patents were held by women, so it wasn't terribly difficult for Charles Annan to steal credit for Margaret's work.
Margaret wasn't having it - she took Annan to court, a man whose public defense summarized the thinking of the day; Charles was woefully underprepared for his court battle, arguing that Margaret was simply incapable of understanding the machinery of the invention, and, therefore, could never have produced it herself. Margaret, however, had spent much of her money on appropriate legal counsel and provided ample evidence of her detailed blueprints. As a result, Knight fought for and won her rights to her patent in 1871.
A True Inventor
Around the time of this court battle, Margaret founded her company, the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Hartford, Connecticut. A true inventor, she continued to file patents throughout her life, and by the time of her death in 1914, she had been granted 26 patents for inventions, among them a rotary engine, a shoe-cutting machine, and a dress and skirt shield.
Margaret Knight was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Had she not spoken up, spent her hard-earned money on legal fees, and taken Charles Annan to court, it likely would never have been known that it was her invention that allowed flat-bottomed paper bags to be made by machinery. Margaret showed women in her time, and in modern times, that intellectual property is worth fighting for and that women are prolific inventors. She was a force to be reckoned with and remains an inspiration today.
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1) "NIHF Inductee Margaret Knight Invented The Paper Bag Making Machine". Invent.Org
2) Smith, Ryan. "Meet The Female Inventor Behind Mass-Market Paper Bags". Smithsonian Magazine
, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/meet-female-inventor-behind-mass-market-paper-bags-180968469/
3) "The Inspiring Story Of Margaret E. Knight". Invent.Org
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