Margaret E. Knight was one of the first women to be awarded a U.S. patent, but if she hadn’t been a fighter, that never would have happened. Born in 1838, Margaret received little schooling, and went to work in the textile mills of New England at the age of 12. While there, she witnessed a worker become injured when a shuttle came off one of the machines, and invented a device that caused the machine to automatically stop if something became caught in it. Though the device was implemented soon after, Margaret was too young and inexperienced to patent her idea or earn any money from it.
After the Civil War, Margaret began working at a paper bag manufacturer. At the time, paper bags were not flat on the bottom as they are today and Margaret realized how much easier they would be to fill (and how much more they would hold) if they had a square bottom. So she set about building a prototype of a machine that would cut, fold, and glue paper bags into the shape they are today. She took her prototype to have it cast in iron, where a man named Charles Annan saw it and attempted to steal her idea, but this time Margaret wouldn’t give up without a fight. He argued that a woman would never be able to design such a machine, but Margaret was able to produce evidence that design was, in fact, hers, and the U.S. Patent Office awarded Margaret her first patent in 1871.
Over the years, Margaret received patents for a variety of other devices, including a numbering machine, window frame and sash, sole cutting machines for shoe making, and several for rotary engines, even though cars didn’t come about until she was in her sixties. Today, Margaret E. Knight is considered the greatest 19th century female inventor, and her paper bag machine is still in use today.