Margaret Knight (1838 – 1914)
This series has been criticised, quite fairly, for ignoring the contribution of women to improving our daily life so to start to redress the balance it is my pleasure to enrol Margaret Knight into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Born in York, Maine Margaret worked in a cotton mill as a child and at the tender age of twelve witnessed an accident in the factory where a steel-tipped shuttle shot out of a mechanical loom, stabbing a work colleague. Within weeks of witnessing this traumatic event, she had invented a safety device which prevented a recurrence.
Margaret never patented her invention which was soon adopted by other mills. Indeed, quite what it was is not clear – it might have been a guard to stop the shuttle from flying off or some kind of safety device to stop the loom. Either way, Margaret made a valuable contribution to safety in the mills but never saw a penny for her initiative. Dogged by poor health, Margaret left the mill before she reached twenty.
In 1867 Margaret moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and started working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company. The industrialisation of paper bag manufacturing had taken a major leap forward when, in 1852, Francis Wolle, a Moravian priest cum schoolteacher cum business man from Pennsylvania, invented and patented a paper bag-making machine. The basics of its design are still used today. That said, the bags it produced were fairly rudimentary, were like envelopes and flimsy, without the flat bottoms that are used today for takeaways and the like. How to improve the paper gag-making machine was a challenge which Margaret could not resist.
She spent time working on a device that would cut, fold and paste the bottoms of bags. When her employer complained about the time Margaret was spending on developing her prototype, she offered him the rights, for a price, if she could come up with a solution. He agreed and after knocking out thousands of bags on her wooden model, Margaret was satisfied that she had a fully functional device. She had a metal prototype made in Boston which was a requisite for submitting a patent application.
But this is where her problems began. A chap called Charles Annan had visited the factory and paid particular attention to her prototype. So meticulous were his observations that he filed for a patent for a machine which looked suspiciously like the square bottom paper bag-making machine that Margaret had painstakingly developed and trialled. Our heroine wasn’t going to let this device slip from her grasp and filed a patent interference suit against Annan. With the bit firmly between her teeth, spent upwards of $100 a day plus expenses in garnering depositions from herself and other key witnesses in preparation for the trial.
As part of his defence Annan claimed that because Margaret was a woman, she could not possibly understand the complexities of a machine like this. Margaret’s preparation paid off though, her notes, diary entries, samples and affidavits convincing the court to dismiss Annan’s rather chauvinist arguments and to find in her favour. But it took three years to get that far. She established the Eastern Paper Bag Company and began to receive royalties for her invention.
Margaret then became a bit of a serial inventor, and is credited with around 90 inventions and twenty-two patents. Her inventions included a new window frame and sash design, a numbering machine, an automatic boring machine and a spinning or sewing machine. Although these all made her money, by the time she died in 1914 she had just $300 to her name.
Margaret, for having to fight male chauvinism to get your just deserts, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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