Saturday, May 7, 2016

Margaret Knight, Inventor

Margaret Knight was an inventor who made her useful device at age twelve: a stop-motion device for factory spindles that would save countless lives. She would obtain more than 25 patents in her lifetime.

"Ethical teaching is weakened if it is tied up with dogmas that will not bear examination." ~ Margaret E. Knight

Margaret Knight was born in York, Maine in 1838. Her family did not have much money and she received little schooling, but played with her siblings at home, creating different toys for each of them. Her father died when she was 12 years, and she had to join her brothers at work in the mills to support the family.

Factory work in the 19th century

Before electricity, manufacturers built their factories near rapidly running water, like streams and waterfalls. The water was used to turn waterwheels, which would power the belts that would turn more wheels inside the factory. These mills were used in many industries, from lumber and grain processing to fabric and shoes, which were formerly made by hand in a very time intensive process.

While water was still being used to power the mills, the jobs were primarily worked by young women. Thousands of families sent their young girls to the factories to earn what they could, and it was hard an unsafe work. The only upside was that the girls would frequently make more in these jobs than the boys would make on a farm.

Margaret was one of the girls who worked in the mills, and she cast her inventor's eyes all around her. She witnessed an accident one day when a needle-tipped spindle flew off a machine and punctured a young girl's leg; amid all the screaming and blood as the girl was ushered off to the hospital, Margaret couldn't help but wonder how it could have been prevented.

With some thought, she was able to create a stop-motion device that would render the loom inoperable if it were to malfunction, so no parts would go flying off to potentially harm someone. Her device was put into use in the cotton mills where she worked, then spread to other mills. She did not have the money or experience to apply for a patent on the part and she never made any money from it, but she did save countless lives.

Over the next two decades Margaret would work in a series of jobs in mills, studios, and repair shops. Wherever she went she showed a mechanical inclination, and would become familiar with whatever machinery and tools were in the vicinity. Like any inventor, her mind was always on understanding how systems worked, and how to improve them.

In the late 1860s she worked for The Columbia Paper Bag Company, in Springfield, Massachusetts. At that time most mass-produced brown paper bags were not flat-bottomed in the style we use today. They were flat, like mailing envelopes, and cheaply glued so they would often come undone. The few bags that were made in the flat-bottom style shown below were all made individually by hand, a very inefficient process.
The type of flat-bottom bag made by Magaret's machine
Working at the factory that made these paper envelopes Margaret realized how slow the process was, and how badly designed the product. Within a month she had produced a sketch of a machine that could automatically cut, fold, and glue the bags together just by turning a crank. It took about 6 months for her to build a wooden model of the machine, and it was reportedly "rickety" but made more than 1,000 bags.

Margaret took her wooden model to Boston to have it cast into iron. She worked closely with the shop machinist to get it exactly as she envisioned, but it still needed refinement. This she did at a second machine shop, where it was observed by a man named Charles Annan. By the time she had perfected it and applied for the patent, Annan had already filed his own patent, for her idea with slight modifications.

Margaret sued Annan for stealing her idea outright. She did not have much money and might have just given up, but she would not - she scraped together her earnings and paid a lawyer $100 a day. Margaret  had ample proof the idea was hers originally - she supplied the court with copious notes and drawings in her diary as she went through the stages of development of the machine. The machinists in both shops testified that she had come up with the idea first, and that Annan had been present for part of that process.

Margaret's patent

Model for patent office
On the stand, Annan had trouble explaining how he developed the idea for the machine or why he made slight modifications (perhaps as he could not remember exactly how Margaret's model worked). His only defense was to insist that he conceived of the idea independently, and there was no way a woman's mind would be able to understand how that machinery worked, but Margaret's notes and testimony proved otherwise. The court ruled in favor of Margaret.

After making the machine herself, Margaret formed the Easter Paper Bag Company. She received the patent for the machine in 1871, the first of many in her lifetime. Her invention received much attention, as it deserved - it could do the work of thirty people, after all - it was immediately adopted by the paper industry. Margaret made about $50,000 from her machine, and earned a medal from Queen Victoria.

Margaret continued to educate herself not only about machinery, but patent law, licensing, and contract negotiation. Over the next forty-five years she developed close to ninety new inventions, and patented about 25 of them. Some of her inventions include shoe cutting machines, window sashes, rotary engines, and motors for cars. She spent nearly every day inventing and died at the age of 76, still working up to 20 hours a day when inspired by a new idea.

In 2006 Margaret was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She had a creative and natural talent for inventing and learned to fight and educate herself to defend her work as well. When she died, an obituary described her as "a woman Edison." In fact she was something completely different: her own person and a woman inventor named Margaret Knight.


"I sighed sometimes because I was not like other girls; but wisely concluded that I couldn't help it, and sought further consolation from my tools."

"It is a mistake to try to impose Christian beliefs on children and to make them the basis of moral training. the moral education of children is much too important a matter to be built on such foundations."

"Jesus, in fact, was typical of a certain kind of fanatical young idealist: at one moment holding forth, with tears in his eyes, about the need for universal love; at the next, furiously denouncing the morons, crooks, and bigots who did not see eye to eye with him. It is very natural and very human behavior. But it is not superhuman."

"My chief aim was to combat the view that there can be no true morality without superhuman sanctions. So I argued at length that the social, or altruistic, impulses are the real source of morality, and that an ethic based on these impulses has far more claim on our allegiance than an ethic based on obedience to the commands of a God who created tapeworms and cancer-cells."


  • Margaret Knight: Invention of the Paper Bag Machine, Famous Women Inventors,, 2016
  • Margaret Knight, Successful Inventor: American Comes Alive, Kate Kelly,, 2016
  • Margaret E. Knight, National Women's History Museum,, 2016

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