“I’m not surprised at what I’ve done. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy and have been put to my trade regularly.”
Margaret Knight, 19th Century American Inventor
Paternalistic writers of the late 19th century felt it was a compliment to characterize Margaret Knight as, “The Thomas Edison of female inventors,” “a female Edison” and “Lady Edison.”
Despite the sexism of the 1800s, Ms. Knight was a successful inventor, filing patents over a 42-year span (1870 to 1912). With only an elementary school education, she created at least 89 inventions, 22 of which she patented in the U.S.
Though she didn’t receive her first patent until she was 32, Ms. Knight was an inventive child. She became a proficient whittler, which led to her building sleds and kites. In keeping with the limited schooling offered poor children of her era, she left school as a pre-teen, taking a job in a cotton mill.
Around 1850, she created her first known invention, when she witnessed a girl become injured by spindle that flew off its shuttle after the thread broke. Ms. Knight was just 12 years old.
Although several, somewhat conflicting descriptions of her first invention have been passed down through history, we know that it was a mechanical device that caused the machinery to stop when a thread broke. Due to her minor status, and the lack of scruples of her employer, she didn’t receive any monetary compensation for her “stop action” invention, which was propagated throughout the textile industry.
It is thought that she worked in a cotton mill until her late teens. Historians also believe that for the next two decades, she worked at various short-term jobs, including becoming a daguerreotype (images on silver plated copper) and ambrotype (images on glass) photographer. It is not surprising that a curious inventor would be drawn to photography during the mid-1800s, as it was a high-tech, rapidly evolving area of innovation.
Her engineering career spanned the three distinct periods outlined below. In addition to the inventions she created within these industries, she also patented a window sash and frame, a dress and skirt shield, a barbecue pit, a clasp for holding robes and a “numbering device.” Of this last invention, I can find no further description, nor have I been able to locate the original patent. If anyone has further information regarding the nature of her “numbering” patent, please contact me via @johngreathouse on Twitter.
1867 ~ 1880 Paper Bag Industry
It was during this period that Ms. Knight created her best known and most commercially profitable series of inventions, all related to the commercialization of flat-bottom paper bags.
Prior to her innovation, retailers used envelope-shaped bags, which were awkward to hold and notorious for ripping. Mass producing paper bags with a flat bottom was a difficult engineering challenge, with one historian noting, “…others had been trying to do it for years.” Her bag design became the standard mode for retail customers to transport their purchase home for over a century. She held three patents related to her innovative paper bag machinery, though the first one didn’t come without a fight.
Ms. Knight began working on the paper bag challenge, soon after joining the Columbia Paper Bag Company in 1867, as a factory employee. She wrote in her journal at the time, “I am told that there is no such machine known as a square-bottomed machine. I mean to try away at it until I get my ideas worked out.” Her goal was to create machinery that could, “… cut, fold and paste bag bottoms itself.” She eventually convinced her perplexed factory bosses to allow her to test a “rickety” wooden prototype that was able to produce thousands of, “good, handsome bags.”
In 1868, she commissioned a metal prototype to support her patent filing. Unbeknownst to her, her invention was seen by Charles F. Annan, who filed before Ms. Knight and obtained a patent on her design.
She founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870, but her entrepreneurial efforts were hampered by the legal confusion surrounding her venture’s underlying intellectual property. Thus, in 1871, she was forced to pay a lawyer $100 per day ($2,100 in 2021), to protect her intellectual property in court. Mr. Annan’s lawyer argued that it was inconceivable that a woman could invent such a complicated and efficient machine. Fortunately, with the help of her journal entries and corroborating witnesses, she prevailed, receiving her first patent at the age of 32.
1890 ~ 1894 Shoe Industry
Ms. Knight received five patents for machines that facilitated cutting soles for shoe production. She also patented a sewing device during this period, which had applications in the shoe industry.
Little is known about the specific companies Ms. Knight worked with during this period, but historians speculate that she may have been hired explicitly to improve various companies’ existing machinery, as well as to invent new methods of production.
1896 ~ 1913 Automotive Industry
In 1896, she co-founded the Knight-Davidson Motor Company with her business partner, Anna F. Davidson, an investor and fellow inventor. Between 1902 and 1904, she was granted eight patents related to rotary engines, including sleeve-valve innovations that were improvements over conventional poppet valves. Her design, dubbed the Silent Knight engine, also leveraged the exhaust gases to propel the pistons, thereby creating a sophisticated, double acting motor. She also developed a more reliable automobile wheel, dubbed the Resilient Wheel.
A K-D car was shown at the 1913 Boston Automobile Show, as means of demonstrating the engine’s superiority. As a company ad from 1912 stated, the engine would provide car manufacturers, “…more power, speed and endurance… than any other engine, on any other type of automobile.” Unfortunately, Ms. Knight passed away in 1914 and the company was unable to license her unique engine designs.
How Inventive? We May Never Know
Historians do not agree on the definitive number of innovations created by many 19th century female inventors, including Ms. Knight. The 89 inventions attributed to her derives from an interview she gave late in her life. Given her long career, it is quite possible that she may not have considered some of her many incremental innovations to be properly described as “inventions.” Unfortunately, given the lack of written records, we’ll probably never know the true extent of Ms. Knight’s inventive genius.
We do know that she was one of America’s most celebrated inventors of the late 19th century. For instance, England’s Queen Victoria awarded her the Royal Legion of Honour shortly before her death in 1914. Yet despite her fame and prolific career, Ms. Knight did not amass a fortune. It is estimated that at her death, her net worth was about $300 ($7,800 in 2021). One wonders what Margaret Knight could have accomplished if society had not shackled her talents with the bonds of sexism.
If you have children who are younger than Ms. Knight was when she left school, consider sharing one of the following books with them:
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse
Forbes – Entrepreneurs