Lady in a Machine Shop: Margaret E. Knight

Margaret E. Knight was born in York, Maine in1838. Margaret was very interested in tools and machinery even as a young child. Woman in that period were not considered to be mechanically inclined or to be interested in machinery.  Children especially were not thought to be creative enough to invent things.
Margaret, however, began inventing things at a young age and had her first success very early in life. She witnessed a horrible accident at the cotton mill where she and her brothers worked. Many people had tried over the years to make the looms safer for the workers but no one had come up with an idea that worked. Margaret spend hours and hours creating a safer design for the loom piece in question and at the tender age of 12 she had her first working invention. The covered shuttle she invented is still in use on cotton looms today.
In 1868, Margaret moved to Massachusetts and began working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company. Paper bags at that time were envelope shaped and held closed by having twine or string wrapped around them. Square bottom bags were rarely used because they had to be made by hand and were very expensive. Margaret decided that there was definitely room for improvement and set about trying to create a machine that would cut, fold and paste square bottoms bags by itself. This would make the bags much less expensive to produce and do the work of many people with only one machine.

She worked days at the Columbia Paper Bag Company and while she worked, she studied the machines that were in existence there already. At night, she took her ideas home and spent hours building and rebuilding models of a machine she thought would create a better paper bag machine. It took a very long time and a massive amount of work to get what she wanted from the machine. She tested and adjusted and changed things in the plan until it was just what she wanted.
Once the design of the machine was perfect, she hired some one to make the actual machine for her. The models had not been very sturdy and she wanted one made of iron that would hold up to a full days work.
While Margaret was doing all this, a man named Charles Annan stole her idea and had a patent put on it under his own name.
Margaret had put too much work into this machine and was not going to sit by and let someone else take the credit for it. She took Charles Annan to court over stealing her idea and her patent. Charles Annan was confident that he could win by convincing the judge that no woman understood machinery and would never be able to design and build a machine complex enough to make square bottom paper bags.
Charles Annan underestimated Margaret Knight and it cost him the court battle. Margaret brought in all her drawings, plans and models of the machine. She explained how it worked and why it would improve the method currently used. Her knowledge and documentation proved to the judge that she was the rightful owner of the design and the machine.
Margaret got her patent for the paper bag in 1870. She co-founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870 as well and put her invention to work.
She is known as the Queen of Paper Bags and her invention is used to this day, along with the design she created for the square bottom paper bag.
Tag Brill, M. (2001) Margaret Knight Girl Inventor
Mill brook

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