Margaret E. Knight (1838-1914)
In 1620, Pilgrims from England to North America first settled in New England, the first settlement being Plymouth Colony. Today, New England comprises six states of the Northeastern United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.(1) Look into the role of American women in the 19th century Industrial Revolution and you can’t miss their contribution in the New England textile mills.
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. 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.(2)
While it was water that powered factory machinery, it was women who ran those machines – almost all of them young. Often these daughters earned more cash money than their fathers and brothers who remained on the farm.
Margaret Knight was one of these factory girls but she was different from most with her keen eye and mind for inventions. In 1850, at the age of 12, while working in a factory in Manchester, New Hampshire, she saw a shuttle fly from a machine and injure a worker. These accidents happened all too often. Knight conceived a device that would automatically stop a machine if something got caught in it (a stop-motion device). By the time she was a teenager the invention was being used in the mills. A patent was never filed as at the time she was too young and her family too uneducated.
By the late 1860’s, Knight was working for a paper bag manufacturer in Springfield, Massachusetts. She thought how much easier it would be to pack items in paper bags if the bottoms were flat (which they were not at the time). 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. Within a month she had a sketch of one, and within half a year she had a working wooden model that would cut, fold, and glue the bags together with the turn of a crank.(3) Knight took her wooden model to Boston to be cast in iron. There came the twist in her story.
Charles Annan, another machinist, stole her design while it was being cast at a shop and filed a patent. Upon filing her patent, Knight was surprised to find her application rejected. The patent was already granted to Annan. Knight filed a successful patent interference lawsuit and was awarded the patent in 1871. Annan’s argument in court simply was ‘a woman couldn’t have the sense to understand such mechanical complexities’. Knight defended her work through careful diary entries, mechanical drawings, samples, and knowledge. She famously became the first woman to file and win a lawsuit against a man.
To this very day, thousands of machines based on Margaret Knight’s idea are still used to produce flat-bottom paper bags. Knight didn’t stop there though; throughout her lifetime she would receive over 87 patents and conceive almost 100 different inventions – including a machine for cutting the soles of shoes, a sewing machine reel, a pronged spit, a paper-feeding machine, an ‘automatic tool for boring concave or cylindrical surfaces,’ a numbering mechanism, a skirt protector, and a sleeve-valve engine, among many other inventions. Further, 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 in 1914.(2)
She has been called ‘the most famous 19th century woman inventor’ and was awarded the Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honour by Queen Victoria in 1871. A plaque recognizing her as the “first woman awarded a U.S. patent” and holder of 87 U.S. patents hangs on the Curry Cottage at 287 Hollis St in Framingham. (However, Knight was not actually the first female patent-holder. The first was Hannah Wilkinson Slater, wife of industrialist Samuel Slater: she invented two-ply thread, granted a patent in 1793). Knight was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.(4)
At the time of her death, an obituary described Knight as a ‘Woman Edison’. In actuality, she was something greater – she was a woman inventor named Margaret Knight.(5)
6. Images – http://americacomesalive.com/2013/03/19/margaret-knight-1838-1914-successful-inventor/#.VaVpXhAVick, http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/inventions/10-things-that-women-invented.htm
7. Feature image – http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/inventions/10-things-that-women-invented.htm