You’ve heard of Thomas Edison—but have you heard of Margaret Knight? She was a near-contemporary of Edison and the holder of at least two dozen U.S. patents. (Some sources say nearly 90, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says 26, and I take them for the authority.) She created her first invention, a safety mechanism for mechanical looms, when she was only 12.
I stumbled on this lovely bit of history at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, a small but earnest museum in Waltham, Mass. If you like industrial-age technology, watchmaking, and/or steampunk, this is the place for you—and they encourage kids to turn cranks and pull levers on many of the machines. The museum’s exhibits include a paper-bag making machine invented by Knight.
Knight in fact developed the idea for the flat-bottomed grocery bag we still use today. The idea came to her, according to the docent, after she put down a pointed-bottom bag and a carton of eggs fell out and broke. She went on to create a machine that made flat-bottomed bags—cutting, folding, and gluing them. She had to fight for the patent rights to the machine, but finally won. She then founded her own bag-making company. Other inventions of hers related to shoe manufacturing and designs for rotary engines, among other things.
She’s been called the “lady Edison,” which makes my skin crawl just a bit. Not that Edison isn’t a worthy model—but Knight was nine years older. By some measure, he should be called the “gentleman Knight.” Knight, however, had to contend with the obstacles society placed in the way of women who wanted careers, especially in fields like engineering. As the old saying goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.” Imagine what Knight could have done with the societal support that Edison had.
You can find out a bit more about Knight at the National Women’s History Museum site. For young children, try the picture book about her, Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor, by Caldecott medalist Emily Arnold McCully. The book was named to the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Book List in 2007 as a recommended book “with significant feminist content.” It’s clearly an oversight that this book hasn’t made it into my household yet; an oversight I intend to rectify.
In an afterward to her book, McCully quotes from an interview Knight did with Women’s Journal, in which the inventor said, “I was called a tomboy, but that made very little impression on me. I sighed sometimes, because I was not like other girls, but wisely concluded that I couldn’t help it, and sought further consolation from my tools.”
And she never married. Make of that what you will. (Stereotypes, I know. And there’s no evidence, to my knowledge. But it crossed your mind, didn’t it?)
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