Margaret Eloise Knight was once known as "the most renowned lady inventor," but chances are you've never heard of her. It's too bad since if you do any food shopping, you owe it to her to make things so much easier. Her invention resulted in a product that is both humble and commonplace.
Margaret Knight, a self-taught engineer, devised the machine that produced flat-bottomed paper bags. And subsequently founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870, making grocery bags pretty similar to those used today.
She faced a surprising amount of difficulty during her lifetime as a woman inventor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To achieve both her aims and the respect she deserved—when few women held intellectual property. This is her story.
Inventor by Birth
On February 14, 1838, Margaret Knight was born in York, Maine, to Hannah Teal and James Knight. As her parents and friends called her, Mattie had a collection of carpentry tools that she enjoyed using to create things with. Her kites and sleds made her famous as a kid.
A sled or sleigh is a ground vehicle that slides on ice or snow. It has a smooth underbelly or an independent body, supported by two or more smooth, relatively narrow longitudinal runners, comparable to skis. By minimizing friction, oversized loads can be transported more efficiently.
"The only things I wanted as a kid were a jackknife, a gimlet (a tool for boring holes), and bits of wood," she later remarked of her youth.
Their widowed mother reared Knight and her brothers, Charlie and Jim; Knight's father died while she was a child. The impoverished family relocated to Manchester, New Hampshire, where work in the cotton mills was available.
She has some secondary school education but no official education after that. Knight used her creative imagination and curiosity in mechanical things to create several inventions as a child and an adult.
Like many other young people in the United States during the early years of the industrial era, her brothers and her brothers went to work at a local cotton textile factory. Allow me to refresh your memory a bit on the industrial revolution.
The Children of the Industrial Revolution
The earliest factories were constructed in the 18th century, with British textile mills spreading throughout the United States during the First Industrial Revolution. Industrial exploitation of labor, especially child labor, skyrocketed. As crucial employees, child apprentices were hired. These workplaces were dubbed "black satanic mills" by Charles Dickens.
E. P. Thompson defined them as "places of sexual license, vile language, brutality, tragic accidents, and foreign manners. "The industrial system was condemned for severe discipline, harsh punishment, ill working conditions, low earnings, and inflexible work hours.
Why was child labor was prevalent during the industrial revolution?
Children are small and could readily fit between machines and into small spaces, and that's why they were preferred over adults.
Another reason why firms preferred to hire children was that they worked for a low wage. Children were frequently not paid and instead worked for their housing and board. Children in industrial jobs were self-sufficient employees with no safeguards in place.
Many children were compelled to work in deplorable conditions for wages that were often 10–20 percent of an adult male's earnings. Employed were children as young as four years old. Child coal miners and hurriers were subjected to beatings and worked long hours, some working for more than 14 hours.
Cotton mill children who worked as mule scavengers crawled under equipment to pick up cotton six days a week. Some people lost hands or limbs, while others were crushed by the machinery or had their heads beheaded.
Many young girls worked in match factories, where phosphorus fumes produced phossy jaw. This painful condition deformed the sufferer and caused brain damage with decaying bone tissue and foul discharge. Glassworkers' children were frequently burned and blinded, and potters' children were exposed to deadly clay dust.
Orphans and abandoned youngsters were sold to workhouses as "pauper apprentices," working for free in exchange for board and shelter. In cotton mills in 1800, there were 20,000 apprentices. Overwork and contagious diseases like smallpox, typhoid, and typhus made the apprentices prone to mistreatment, industrial accidents, and bad health.
Contagious diseases like typhus and smallpox spread quickly because of the enclosed conditions. To reduce the frequency of thread breakage, they usually kept cotton mills as warm and draft-free as possible. Close contact within mills and factories, especially because hygiene in mills and housing were often poor.
On the River Irwell near Radcliffe, a water-powered cotton mill was established for Robert Peel around 1780. The mill employed children rescued from Birmingham and London workhouses. They were enslaved laborers since they were underpaid and bonded apprentices until they reached 21.
They boarded on the building's higher floors and were locked inside. Shifts were usually 10–10.5 hours long. 12 hours after meal breaks, and apprentices "hot bunked." A child who had just ended his shift slept in a bed that had just been vacated. Usually, it was from another child who was just starting his shift.
Her First Attempt at Innovation
Knight got the idea for her first invention in the mill. Steel-tipped flying shuttles were manipulated by employees to combine the perpendicular weft and warp threads in their weaves. But they had a tendency to come free of their looms, shooting off at a tremendous velocity with the most minor employee error, she soon discovered. And one day, she watched as the loom malfunctioned and a shuttle flew out and hit a young boy.
Knight, who was mechanically inclined, set out to correct this. By thirteen, she had designed an innovative shuttle restraint system that would soon sweep the cotton industry. When her shuttle restraint device malfunctioned, it shut down the entire machine. It protected shuttles from dropping out of the looms when it was in operation.
Margaret did not have an engineering education, and she did not belong to any inventor's circles. As a result, she did not have the resources to patent her idea. Unfortunately, she was uninformed of the patent system at such a young age and received no reward for her efforts. On the other hand, Knight realized the monetary value of her inventions over time and fought for her patent rights.
Knight's health difficulties made it impossible for her to continue working in the cotton mills. She continued doing various technical jobs to keep her wallet and mind fed. Throughout time, she developed a wide range of trades, being equally at ease with daguerreotypes and upholstery.
Working for Columbia Paper Bag Company, situated in Springfield, Massachusetts, cemented—or should have cemented—her place in history.
Wrap it up!: Paper Bags Could be Better
So Francis Wolle actually invented the paper bag, not Margaret E. Knight. However, it was Knight that developed the modern paper bag. Wolle was a Moravian Church pastor, inventor, and phycologist from the United States.
The Union Bag and Paper Company was founded in 1851 when Francis Wolle built the first bag-making machine. In 1852, Wolle patented his "Machine for Making Paper Bags."
"Suitable lengths of paper are given out from a roll of the requisite width, cut off from the roll and otherwise adequately cut to the required shape, folded, edges pasted and lapped, and shaped into complete and flawless bags," he claimed. The machine was capable of producing 1,800 bags per hour.
Paper wasn't the ubiquitous disposable carrying sack it is today. Machines could produce paper bags by making a tube out of paper and pasting the bottom and side edges together. Still, the result was a little bag that could not accommodate anything significant, similar to a huge envelope. In stationery and card establishments, this type of bag is still utilized.
Flat-bottomed paper bags could contain more, but they had to be made by hand. It was a time-consuming process that was not profitable.
They were also prohibitively expensive for most applications. People used to bring their own cloth sacks to the market or were given their items in big crates or boxes that were difficult to store.
Since at least the 1840s, flat-bottomed bags have been widely used in Britain, with advancements in hand-production processes occurring throughout the 1850s. In 1853, James Baldwin of Birmingham was granted a patent for semi-mechanized gear to produce flat-bottomed paper bags. But it was Knight who fully automated the process.
Knight couldn't believe how long it took to construct just one flat-bottomed bag. She spent a lot of time at work observing how flat-bottomed bags were created and attempting to replicate them. Instead of folding every paper bag by hand, Knight wondered if she might create them cleanly and quickly using an automated method.
She experimented with a machine that could mechanically feed, cut, and fold the paper, as well as construct the bag's squared bottom. Flat-bottomed bags were considered handcrafted objects before Knight's efforts, and they were difficult to come by in everyday life.
Knight's concept promised to democratize user-friendly bags, putting an end to the onerous paper cones in which food was formerly transported. And bringing in a new era of shopping and transportation convenience.
Knight decided she wanted to go the extra mile and get a patent on her exquisite paper-folding equipment when she had produced a functional model.
This was a brave move for a woman in the nineteenth century. Since women-owned a vanishingly small number of patents (even allowing for those who filed under male aliases or with sex-neutral initials).
Women now have full property rights and hold many more positions of power in government than they did in the 1800s. But they account for less than 10% of "principal inventor" patent awards, owing to long-standing barriers.
The Conceptual Model
Margaret E. Knight had a functional wooden model to cut, fold, and glue the bags together. And only by turning a crank within six months of her first idea. It wasn't the most durable machine, but it produced almost 1,000 bags!
Knight collaborated with a machinist to make an iron prototype now that she knew it would function. She relocated to Boston to perfect the innovation. It took her a few months to be ready to file a patent application.
A Thief and the Ensuing Court Battle
While Margaret was in Boston working with the two machinists, another machinist called Charles Annan in the shop seemed to be particularly interested in her machine. Knight was unconcerned about it until her patent application was denied. She was astounded to hear a similar device had already been granted a patent interference lawsuit.
An interference lawsuit is an inter partes proceeding used to resolve the priority issues of numerous patent applications. It is a procedure that is unique to American patent law. Most other nations have long had a first-to-file system. But the United States had a first-to-invent system until the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (A.I.A.) was enacted in 2011. The interference proceeding determines which of the first inventor's many patent applications was filed.
Charles Annan decided to pull the rug out from under her and claim the work as his own. Annan contended,
"she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexity of the machine,"
Potentially using prejudice against women, and/or his design was different (presumably based on information he misremembered), and that she had failed to create a working machine.
According to Michael Abrams of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Annan's sole argument is a modern exaggeration. He argued that his machine was different, as stated by Ryan Smith of the Smithsonian Magazine.
"I've been involved with equipment in some capacity since I can remember... I have worked at almost everything where machinery is employed," Knight said during the court battle.
Knight countered with a plethora of evidence, including careful hand-drawn designs, notebooks, and models, as well as several witnesses who testified that she had been drawing and modeling since the year 1867.
For the 16-day hearing, she spent $100 (equal to $2,047 in 2020) every day in legal expenditures, which resulted in triumph.
In 1871, the Patent Office gave Knight the rights. Queen Victoria gave the Royal Legion of Honour the same year, as flat-bottomed paper bags became increasingly popular worldwide.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History houses a scaled-down, fully functional patent model of Knight's. The pioneering machine (actually an upgrade of her initial invention, patented in its own right in 1879).
Deborah Warner, who obtained the Knight model from an outside company a few decades ago, adds, "Women have been active in numerous activities for a long time." "In the 19th century, they were creating and patenting, and this happened to be a woman who appears to have been especially imaginative and brazen."
Annan was not the only one who appreciated the importance of the Knight's invention. Knight accepted several offers before collaborating with a businessman from Newton, Massachusetts. Together, they created the Hartford, Connecticut-based Eastern Paper Bag Company.
Located in Connecticut, Hartford is the state capital. Until Connecticut eliminated the county government in 1960, it was the seat of Hartford County. It is the most populous city in the Hartford metropolitan area.
She got royalties from the Eastern Paper Bag Company. She continued to work as an inventor because she had no interest in managing a business. To bring you up to speed, a royalty payment is paid by one party to another who owns a particular asset in exchange for the right to utilize that asset indefinitely. Royalties are usually calculated as a percentage of gross or net revenues earned from the use of an asset or as a fixed amount per unit sold of an investment.
Knight's machine performed admirably, and inexpensive flat-bottomed paper bags became readily accessible soon. Her invention revolutionized shopping in the U.S.US. and around the world.
But before long, Margaret had to fight for her patent again with the Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co.
Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co.
Eastern Paper Bag Company launched a lawsuit to prohibit its competitor (the Continental Paper Bag Corporation) from using patents for "self-opening" paper bags. The Continental Paper Bag Company launched the suit because it alleged that the Easter Paper Bag Corporation was not using its existing patents. And was instead attempting to suppress market competition.
The Supreme Court of the United States issued a significant ruling in Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co. On April 15, 1908, the Supreme Court heard the case of Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co., which was determined in June of that year.
The United States Supreme Court established that patent holders are under no formal obligation to use their patent. The United States Supreme Court also concluded that it was not unreasonable for patent holders to use existing equipment rather than build new machinery.
Chief Justice Melville Fuller and Associate Justices John Harlan, David Brewer, Edward White, Rufus Peckham, Oliver Holmes Jr., William Moody, William Day, and Joseph Mckenna decided the case of Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co. Following this decision, Knight worked to develop new inventions.
Knight became a full-time inventor after the arrangement with the Eastern Paper Company, living in Ashland and subsequently Framingham, Massachusetts, and working from a downtown Boston office.
Ashland, Massachusetts, is located in Middlesex County. It is a component of the MetroWest metropolitan area. At the time of the United States Census in 2020, the population was 18,832.
Knight would follow this pattern for the remainder of her career, selling her innovations to firms to survive her patent sales and royalties. Margaret E. Knight's inventions did not end with the paper bag! Knight obtained several additional patents for the paper bag machine. She patented,
1. In 1883, a dress and skirt shield.
The object of this invention was to give improved ladies' dresses and skirts a shield that can be folded between an impermeable or another suitable outer and inner wall. Connections between a waist belt secured the lower part of skirts in position. The object was to provide a shield of this class that is easy to put on and off and afford perfect protection for the dresses against rain, snow, dirt, and thorns.
It was desirable that the fabric, whether of textile or other suitable material, be light and water-resistant. It could be constructed of ordinary thin gossamer cloth, such as was often used for manufacturing ladies waterproof cloaks.
A circular body was created to receive and encompass the lower part of the dress skirt and shaped like a bag. Extending upward from the bottom of the latter within and without. And was provided with a series of hinged clasps secured to the interior. And operated to press the upper edges of the shield closely against the skirt and provided means for attaching the straps to the shield.
2. In 1884, a robe clasp.
The invention was an improved device for clamping one or more thicknesses of robes or textile fabric to hold them in any desired position. Either as a detached clasp for uniting the otherwise free edges of said robe or sheet of cloth. Also, as a means of attachment from the end of a flexible connection to a fixed point. And from said connection provided with means for securing its other end.
3. In 1885, a cooking spit.
Rotisserie, also known as spit-roasting, is a method of roasting in which meat is impaled on a spit, a long solid rod used to hold food. It is cooked over an open fire in a fireplace or a campfire or baked in an oven. This method is typically used to prepare huge meat joints or whole animals.
4. Machines used in cutting shoe materials.
She also ventured into the shoe industry in the 1880s and 1890s, designing new sole-cutting machinery. This machine was designed specifically for cutting India rubber soles from an adequately prepared strip or sheet of rubber for use on all types of boots and shoes.
The other material from which the soles were to be cut was supported upon an endless apron or belt. It comprised a series of flexibly connected tablets or beds that intermittently moved horizontally beneath a pattern and cutting device.
5. Components for rotary engines and motors.
got interested in rotary engines near the end of her life, which were still a relatively new technology at the time. The Knight Silent Motor was the name of her gasoline-powered machine. She also developed the concept of "non-skid" tires.
The current invention concerned an internal combustion engine. It was incorporated in a novel structure and arrangement of the valves and valve actuation mechanism and some unknown aspects relating to the engine's overall construction.
The cylinder was provided with lateral inlet and exhaust ports on opposite sides. The said ports were controlled, respectively, by separate slide members that were movable concerning the cylinder. And provided with port openings adapted to cooperate with the cylinder ports in opening and closing communication with the insides of the cylinder during the movement of the slide members. The slide members in question were controlled independently and timed correctly to regulate the ports.
Knight also had patents for a sewing machine reel, a paper feeding machine, a numbering system, and a sleeve-valve engine, in addition to her paper bag machine.
6. Paper feeding machine.
7. Sewing machine reel.
8. Sleeve valve engine.
Knight accumulated 30 patents throughout her career, and she also invented many non-patentable gadgets. The elderly Knight "worked twenty hours a day on her eighty-ninth invention," according to a 1913 New York Times article published a year before her death in Framingham.
"Women Who Are Inventors," a New York Times piece, touched on another important facet of Knight's life. She'd established herself as a critical player in the early women's rights movement. Women were campaigning for suffrage (the right to vote).
Knight's achievements—especially since they were in the "male" sector of machinery—appeared to be the perfect rebuttal to allegations that women didn't deserve rights. Because they lacked the intellectual capacity of men.
The author mentions Knight explicitly, then lists several other similarly gifted female contemporaries, refuting the lingering notion that women lack innovation skills.
- Miss Jane Anderson, who invented a bedside slipper rack,
- Mrs. Norma Ford Schafuss, who developed a garter buckle, and
- Mrs. Anita Lawrence Linton, a vaudeville performer who created a realistic "rain curtain" for use in dramatic theatrical shows,
They were among those honored.
Knight was covered in various pro-suffrage newspapers, publications, and other female innovators known as "Lady Edisons." The New York Times piece was intended to refute "a well-known physician" who said in an interview that women failed to produce works of genius or make any significant contributions.''
Even though Knight's struggles as a female inventor have become mythologized beyond reality, she encountered numerous obstacles and limitations. Women had a tiny percentage of patents when Knight patented her paper bag machine.
Knight was never wealthy, even though she lived more comfortably in her later years than she did as a youngster. She died alone, with only $300 to her name and accomplishments.
The Curry Cottage at 287 Hollis St in Framingham has a plaque honoring her as the "first woman issued a U.S.U.S. patent" and the holder of 87 U.S.U.S. patents. (However, Knight was not the first; Mary Kies or Hannah Slater also hold that distinction.)
In 2006, Knight was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Knight's most successful invention was flat-bottomed paper bags. They were used to replacing cloth sacks, crates, and boxes for shopping for nearly a century before being supplanted by disposable plastic bags.
Knight's brave example undoubtedly encouraged many female inventors in the early 1900s—and later—to improve the world around them. In America today, women have full property rights and hold far more power in government than they did in the 1800s. But women account for less than 10% of "primary inventor" patent awardees—an unquestionable result of long-standing discouraging norms.
Equal Opportunity for Inventions and Work
The USPTO explored the participation of U.S.-based women inventor-patentees in the U.S.U.S. patent system in a 2019 report titled "Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S.U.S. patents." It looked at the trends and characteristics of women's participation.
The research discovered that the participation of female inventors and patentees has improved throughout time. The percentage of patents containing at least one woman inventor increased from 20.7 percent in 2016 to 21.9 percent at the end of 2019, outpacing the previous period.
While faster growth in patent output is encouraging, it's unclear whether this trend reflects the contributions of female inventor-patentees. Because the vast majority of patents are produced by mixed-gender teams.
By 2019, the Women Inventor Rate (W.I.R.) had increased from 12.1 percent in 2016 to 12.8 percent. This demonstrates that women are more active as inventors and patentees. However, a W.I.R. of 12.8 percent is significantly lower than other women's education and employment benchmarks in science and engineering.
Only 27,000 women were inventor-patentees in 2017, even though women occupied nearly 2 million research and engineering positions. Men were three times more inclined than women to be inventor-patentees in science and engineering jobs.
These findings imply that while increasing the pipeline through education and science. Engineering occupations are vital. It is insufficient to enhance female inventor-patentee participation.
Women are increasingly entering and becoming involved in the patent system.
The most effective way to increase women's engagement as inventor-patentees is to bring new women into the patent system. This research expanded the scope of the USPTO's 2019 "Progress and Potential" report. By putting light on the flow of new U.S.-based inventors entering the patent system, using unique identifiers for inventor-patentees available through Patents View.
There were over 44,550 unique inventor-patentees in 1980. By 2019, this number had risen to almost 241,800. During the same period, this group's share of new inventor-patentees decreased.
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of new female inventor-patentees increased by an average of 10.8 percent per year.
This growth slowed to 4% each year during the next five years, finishing in 2019. Nonetheless, a 4 percent yearly growth in new female inventor-patentees is significantly higher than the 2.5 percent annual growth in new male inventor-patentees from 2014 to 2019. The average number of new female inventor-patentees per year from 2014 to 2019 was around 10,340.
The graph above depicts the percentage of people who stayed engaged in the patent system for the next five years. For example, among the group of new male inventor-patentees in 1980, roughly 38% continued to be active by patenting again during the next five years. Over time, this percentage increased.
In 2014, roughly 52 percent of new male inventor-patentees remained active. The findings for female inventor-patentees show that women are less consistently engaged in the patent system as inventors; however, this is improving with time. About 28% of the 1980 cohort of new female inventor-patentees remained active within the next five years.
In 2014, this figure had risen to approximately 46%. Women inventor-patentees are narrowing the gender gap in the number of active inventor-patentees in the patent system, even though the mechanisms driving these changes are unknown.
The A.W.I.R. in the United States and most states have improved.
Women's participation as inventors and patentees has been enhanced across the country. For 2007-2019, the average women inventor rate (A.W.I.R.) was 14.2 percent, up from 13.6 percent in 2007-2016. However, advances in A.W.I.R. at the national level do not indicate state-level heterogeneity in women's participation.
A strong national A.W.I.R. could be led by a few states, potentially obscuring significant inequalities in women's participation geography. According to the USPTO's 2019 "Progress and Potential" report, the top and lowest state A.W.I.R.s differ by more than ten percentage points (Delaware 18.3 percent; North Dakota 8.2 percent ). During the same time, four states accounted for nearly half of all female inventor-patentees in the United States: California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas.
Wyoming, North Dakota, and Alaska had fewer than 50 female inventor-patentees, four states had between 50 and 100, and 18 states plus the District of Columbia had between 101 and 500 female inventor-patentees.
The graph above depicts the evolution of state A.W.I.R.s since 2016. Compared to 2007-2016, 45 states and the District of Columbia improved their A.W.I.R.s for 2007-2019. The most significant improvement was in Wyoming, which increased from 9.6% to 11.2%. This is a 1.6-percentage-point gain. 10
Because Wyoming has some inventor-patentees, this change indicates a slight rise in the number of women inventor-patentees. 15 states' A.W.I.R.s improved by 0.001 to 0.500 percentage points, while 30 conditions improved by 0.501 to 1.500 percentage points. Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Alabama, and Mississippi had their A.W.I.R.s drop slightly.
Only a few of the top patent assignees outperform the national A.W.I.R.
The primary patent assignees have a disproportionate influence on women's participation in the U.S.U.S. patent system because of the volume of annual patent filings. Only 11 of the 29 top assignees had A.W.I.R.s higher than the 14.2% national A.W.I.R. Procter & Gamble led the group with nearly 29 percent, continuing a long-running pattern.
Women are overrepresented in chemistry, biology, and related S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sectors and employment. Therefore, the three companies with the highest A.W.I.R. ratings supply various healthcare items and pharmaceuticals.
Women make up the most negligible percentage of inventor-patentees at organizations that focus on electrical and mechanical engineering technology, such as Deere & Co. (5%), Caterpillar (6%), and Analog Devices (6%). (7 percent).
Women's participation at 3M Company increased by 1.4 percentage points to 15.2 percent from 2007 to 2019. Procter & Gamble, which ranks first in the A.W.I.R. rankings, saw a decrease of nearly half as much (0.59 percentage points).
Nine of the top 29 assignees shown in Figure 6 saw their A.W.I.R. values improve by more than 1%, while 18 others saw some improvement. Qualcomm and AT&T's A.W.I.R. readings were flat or slightly lower.
Quotes on Life and Business
Margaret didn't bother to use merely the initials of her given name to hide her gender identification. On her first patent, she elected to use her real name. However, this did not result in the breaking of the glass ceiling. She said years later:
Women with Registered Patents for their Inventions
The Key Takeaways
Knight's brave example undoubtedly inspired many female inventors in the early 1900s—and today. Her talent, tenacity, and perseverance inspire anyone with original ideas to make the world a better place. Someone tried to copy her design, so she sued him and won, as well as profiting from her invention. She was a tough lady.
Humble paper bags are still made using upgraded versions of Knight's "industrial origami" machine. They remind us how much one determined woman might achieve. Even when the odds were stacked against her. She's a fantastic heroine!
So, today, when you're at the grocery store, and you select paper over plastic, remember Margaret Knight.