History’s Hidden Heroes: Margaret E. Knight

Maggie KnightWelcome to History’s Hidden Heroes, the feature where we look at scientists who are not well-known in the United States outside of their field.  We feature people of color, women, and LGBT scientists both historical and current.  Today we’re looking at the life and inventions of inventor, Maggie Knight, who lived from 1838 – 1914.  She was awarded The Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honor by Queen Victoria herself.

Maggie was raised by a single mother (her father died when Maggie was young).  Maggie left school at the age of twelve to work in a cotton mill.  Her first invention was a device that would automatically turn a machine off if something was caught in it.  A common cause of injury in the mills was getting caught in the machinery, and Maggie’s device was quickly put into use.

Maggie’s most famous invention was created in 1868, while she was working in a paper bag plant in Massachusetts.  Her invention was a device that would automatically glue and fold the bottom of a bag, so the bag could be stored perfectly flat and then unfolded.  Every time you use a paper bag at the store you are using a variation on Maggie’s invention.  It may not seem like a glamorous invention, but it’s one that’s had a huge impact on every day life.  And, in the 1800s, paper bags (the size you might put your lunch in) were a big industry, so her invention had an economic effect as well.

Charles Annan tried to copy and take credit for her invention, but Maggie took him to court.  His argument was that no woman could invent such a great thing.  She was able to prove that she was the inventor, and she won her patent.  Female inventors faced discrimination in and out of court.  The first known U.S. woman inventor, Sybilla Masters, invented a means of grinding corn in 1715, but she was forbidden by law to have a patent issued to her – it had to be issued to her husband.  Maggie is sometimes listed as the first U.S. woman to have a patent in her own name, but this is incorrect.  The first was Hannah Slater, who was awarded a patent in 1773 for developing cotton sewing thread.

While the paper bag folding machine is the invention that made Maggie Knight famous, it wasn’t her last.  She came up with over 100 different inventions and ended up with over 20 more patents.  You can see her patents at wikipedia.  Here’s a picture of the 1879 patent model of the paper bag machine – isn’t it beautiful?

paper bag folding machine

You can find out more about Maggie Knight at women-inventors.com.  PBS.org has a small but interesting feature about colonial female inventors.