Margaret Knight

(Note: Framingham, MA, USA Town Meeting just passed a law that bans plastic bags at checkout that goes into effect in 2018. So I was interested to learn that the inventor of the first machine for automatically cutting, folding & pasting together paper bags lived in Framingham for 24 years and that she was inventing all along since she was 12.)

Margaret Knight

Born: 1838 Died: 1914
Occupation: inventor of the bag-making machine

Anyone who has ever carried a purchase home in a paper sack or a lunch to school in a paper bag is familiar with the handiwork of Margaret Knight. Her invention, the bag-making machine, greatly simplified the production of flat-bottomed paper bags, thus making these bags a common feature of 20th-century life.

Knight was born on February 14, 1838, in York, Maine. Her parents, James and Hannah, were cotton mill workers. When Knight was young she moved with her family to Manchester, New Hampshire. As a girl she was known as a tomboy, preferring to whittle things out of wood rather than play with dolls. Her formal education consisted of a few years of elementary school, and by age 10 she was working with the rest of her family in a mill. At age 12, after witnessing an accident on the work floor, she designed her first invention, a device to keep a shuttle from slipping out of its loom. She left the mill around 1857 and for the next 10 years she traveled about New England, supporting herself by upholstering chairs, repairing homes, and engraving silver.

In 1867 Knight went to work for the Columbia Bag Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. The company made flat-bottomed brown paper bags, similar to the paper grocery bags of the late 20th century. At the time the bags were cut, folded, and pasted together by hand. Knight became intrigued with the idea of inventing a machine that would perform all three steps mechanically, and for two years she experimented with different bag-making machines. When her supervisor complained that her experiments wasted valuable company time, she got him to leave her alone by suggesting that she might sell him the rights to whatever machine she invented. (In fact, she kept the rights to herself.) Finally, she came up with a workable wooden model, which she sent to a Boston machinist to copy in iron. But while the machinist had the machine, a fellow named Charles F. Annan saw it, copied it, and applied for a patent. Outraged, Knight hired a lawyer and sued Annan for stealing her idea. In 1870, after a lengthy, heated hearing, the U.S. Patent Office examiners found in Knight’s favor.

After receiving her patent, Knight entered into an agreement with the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Hartford, Connecticut. Knight received $2,500 for the right to use her machine, $25,000 in royalties, and 200 shares of company stock, which paid quarterly dividends. She reportedly sold the patent rights at a later date for between $20,000 and $50,000.

Around 1890 Knight moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where she worked in a shoe factory. Over the next four years she patented several machines for cutting shoe leather. She sold her four patents to a group of Boston investors while retaining a one-fourth interest in each patent; she later sold this interest to the Boston Rubber Company. Around 1900 she became interested in automobiles, and for the rest of her life she designed various automobile parts including valves, rotors, and at least two types of motors. By now Knight, who never married, enjoyed a lifestyle comfortable enough that she could afford to assign most of her automotive patents to her favorite nieces and nephews.

In addition to profiting handsomely from her inventions, Knight achieved a measure of fame in her own lifetime. In 1872 the Women’s Journal, a feminist publication, published an interview with Knight and an accompanying article that praised her for her achievements. Her obituary in the Framingham Evening News called her a “woman Edison.” Altogether she is credited with having been awarded 27 patents, and she invented a number of things that she never bothered to patent. She died on October 12, 1914, in Framingham.

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From: American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries, Revised Edition, American Biographies. p231-232

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