Margaret E. Knight (1838-1914)

margaret knight's paper bag machine

Ask about the role of American women in the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and you may be told of women who worked in the New England textile mills. But the story does not end there. Fascinated by tools and machinery, Margaret E. Knight applied her natural creative genius while working at various factories to invent devices that improved productivity and saved lives. Knight was fortunate that her family allowed her to pursue these unconventional interests during her childhood in Maine. Knight received little schooling and never traveled out of northern New England, instead joining her brothers in factory work.

Before electricity, manufacturers built their facilities along rapidly flowing water, preferably waterfalls, which provided the energy to turn the waterwheels that powered the belts that turned the wheels inside the factory In Knight's time, mills expanded from producing lumber and processing grains to manufacturing many types of goods, such as fabric and shoes which families formerly made completely and tediously by hand. Knight's New England was soon was dotted with textile mills and shoe manufacturers.

While it was water that powered factory machinery, it was women who ran those machines - almost all of them young. Scratching out a living from rocky soil in a cold climate always had been difficult, and countless families sent their teenage daughters to work in the new factories. Often these daughters earned more cash money than their fathers and brothers who remained on the farm.

While Knight was one of these factory girls, she was different from most with her keen eye and mind for inventions. She reportedly made her first invention at age twelve, when she saw a shuttle fly from a machine and injure a worker in Manchester, New Hampshire. These accidents were not uncommon, and young Knight solved the problem in that factory by creating a stop-motion device. She was too young and her family too uneducated, however, to patent the idea and make money from its resale.

That was in 1850; it was not until 1870 that Knight finally applied for her first patent - and then she had to fight for it. She was working during the late 1860s for a paper bag manufacturer in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her keen mechanical mind envisioned a machine that could do the necessary folding of square-bottom paper bags, the kind of bag that still is used today. Knight built a wooden model of her creative folding device and took it to Boston to be cast into iron. There a man, Charles Annan, saw her work and stole her idea: when, a few months later, she perfected the machine and applied for its patent, his was already on file. The Patent Office investigated the Knight vs. Annan dispute, and in a rare victory for women in that era, issued the patent to her.

Over her lifetime, she received at least twenty-seven patents; some sources claim that she held more than eighty. Most of her patents related to working with heavy machinery. She methodically thought out the problems of an industry and worked on solutions for several years: she devoted the first half of the 1890s, for example, engineering mechanical changes that improved shoe manufacturing. Although she was in her sixties when the automobile was introduced at the turn of the century, she nevertheless patented a series of rotary engine designs prior to her death in1914.

Although Margaret Knight never became wealthy from her inventions, she appeared to enjoy her creative life -- and she certainly provided a positive role model for other girls.

 

Works Cited: