The Inspiring Story of Margaret E. Knight
At the National Inventors of Fall of Fame® (NIHF), we have the privilege of recognizing individuals whose innovations have improved the lives of people around the world. These innovations range from life-saving medical advances to products we use every day.
Among the latter are the contributions of NIHF Inductee Margaret E. Knight, who in 2006 was recognized for her invention of a machine for making flat-bottom paper bags. This machine enabled the mass production of the paper bags used to carry groceries and pack lunches.
A Young Problem Solver
Born in York, Maine, in 1838, Knight enjoyed working with her hands from an early age. According to historian Henri Petroski, she made toys for her brothers and became famous around town for the kites and sleds she built by hand.
Following the sudden death of her father when Knight was just 12 years old, the family moved to New Hampshire. Here, Knight began working long hours in a cotton mill in order to help her mother make ends meet. Mills were notoriously dangerous due to poor conditions and a lack of safety standards, and it wasn’t long before Knight witnessed a serious accident caused by a malfunctioning loom. Propelled by her desire to help, she invented a shuttle restraint system that would become a standard fixture on looms across the country. Unfortunately, at such a young age, she was unaware of the patent system and did not receive any compensation for her efforts. However, as time went on, Knight realized the monetary potential of her innovations and fought for her creative rights.
Building a Better Bag
In 1867, Knight began working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. Similar to her time working at the cotton mill, she soon realized that the process could be improved. Rather than folding each paper bag by hand, she began to wonder if there could be a way to automate the process. “After a while,” Petroski recounts, “she began to experiment with a machine that could feed, cut, and fold the paper automatically and, most importantly, form the squared bottom of the bag.”
One year later in 1868, this machine was fully operational and had drastically improved both the company’s output and the uniformity of the bags. Given her experience in the cotton mill, Knight knew that this time, she had to apply for a patent. Unfortunately, Charles Annan, a man who worked in the machine shop where the paper bag machine was manufactured, attempted to steal her design. In court, Annan argued that Knight “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine.” She swiftly debunked his unsubstantiated claim by providing the original blueprints of the machine’s design and soundly won the case.
With the rights to this machine secured, Knight went on to co-found her own paper bag company in Hartford, Connecticut called the Eastern Paper Bag Company. Throughout her life, she never stopped innovating, and by the time she passed away in 1914, she had patented more than 25 inventions ranging from a sole-cutting machine for shoemaking to a compound rotary engine. Beyond revolutionizing the way paper bags were manufactured, her story continues to inspire us to this day.
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