Margaret E Knight

Margaret E KnightOn this day in 1838, the great inventor Margaret E Knight was born. She invented a whole bunch of things. She was granted 87 patents in her lifetime. But she is most known for her first patent: a machine to make those flat bottom paper bags that we all know from the grocery store.

There is an interesting story about that. She built a prototype of the device out of wood. But for some reason, she needed a working model made out of iron to get a patent. That doesn’t make any sense. It certainly isn’t the way that patents work today. I suspect it was because she was a woman. Never underestimate the power of sexism. Anyway, she hired the machinist Charles Annan to build the needed iron version of the device. And he promptly stole it and got the patent himself. She had to fight him in court and eventually won, getting the patent for herself in 1871. Somehow, I figure if it happened today it wouldn’t have ended so easily and justly.

She went on to invent a large number of other manufacturing devices — especially related to rotary engines. It’s surprising that she isn’t better known, given that she was the first professional woman inventor. But maybe that’s the reason she isn’t better known.

Happy birthday Margaret E Knight!


I’m not convinced that the image above is actually Knight. The woman in the photo looks to be around 30, which would put the photo at around 1870. She looks a lot more modern than that. But given that she was such a liberated woman, it may well be her. It may just be that I’m used to looking at images of women from the Civil War.

4 thoughts on “Margaret E Knight

  1. Great post!

    I have no doubt that case would be judged differently today. We have very different legal standards today than we used to. There are lots of reasons why and I know zilch about law, so I can’t say why.

    I remember reading about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in 1911, where women burned to death in a poorly-maintained sweatshop with locked doors to prevent workers taking breaks. (Laws were enacted to prevent such a thing happening again; clearly, Americans in those days didn’t understand the importance of Freedom.)

    In the trial against the company owners (trial, not lawsuit; trial, for manslaughter) the defense attempted to show how one of the workers meant nothing to no-one; no family, friends, etc. The judge interrupted, saying her life meant something to her. The owners were convicted and went to prison (probably much humaner prisons than we have now.) Could you even imagine a judge saying such a thing today in a lawsuit (lawsuit, not criminal trial) against a corporation that killed people? That judge would be booted from the bench immediately.

    I could go on a spew about how if corporations get the rights of people, they should also have the responsibilities (like going to jail if you rob or kill), but blah blah, who cares. It is interesting how different our judicial system is today. Perhaps less overtly racist than it once was, certainly as racist as ever in its outcomes. Much more corrupted by the power of money, for sure.

    • The main thing with IP lawsuits is that today they seem to be entirely dependent upon who has the most money. So if Knight had a lot of money, she would win today. But if Annan had gotten his company going and was big by they time of the lawsuit, case would have gone on for a decade and eventually been settled out of court.

      Another issue is that our IP laws are just a mess. It was interesting that when Apple sued Samsung with a totally ridiculous lawsuit, Apple lost in Europe. But they sure as hell won in America. And I always knew they would.

      • It’s the wondrous thing always omitted when Repubs talk about “tort reform,” like our courts are cluttered with “frivolous lawsuits” that let monstrous killers go free: the vast majority of lawsuits are in between corporations. “Tort reform” won’t stop those, just the outrage of people suing automakers for knowingly selling cars that explode easily and such.

        Why these things are lawsuits and not criminal trials, well . . .

        • I remember a professor scoffing at my statement that company owners weren’t held responsible for the sins of their companies. He was a conservative. I suppose in a sense he was right. They can be held criminally responsible if they harm stock holders. But when their companies kill people, they are never held responsible.

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