‘Woman Edison” Inventor: Margaret E. Knight of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts

1912 Photograph of Margaret E. Knight, inventor, in her workshop. From a Boston MA newspaper. Colorized by the blog editor. Watermarked.

When you go grocery shopping, you should be thankful to Margaret E. Knight. One of her many inventions, and possibly her most famous one, was a paper-feeding machine for “making and folding square-bottom paper bags.”

Prior to this time paper bags were envelope-style, that could not hold as much and could easily tip over. The court ruled in a lawsuit against a man who tried to patent her idea first (Knight won), noting that she had conceived the idea as early as February 1867, and she had all the drawings and diagrams to prove it. She was awarded the patent on this machine on 15 November 1870. This same year she started the Eastern Paper Bag Company.

Photograph of Patent Model for Paper Bag Machine; Maker: Margaret E. Knight; ca 1879; ID# 1980.0004.01; National Museum of American History

—First Things First: What Is Falsely Written About Her—
Before I continue with her story I would like to clear up a bit of misinformation. It seems to me that some folks who wrote about her just copied other people’s articles and didn’t bother to do the research. I prefer the truth first, secondly a good story.

NO — Margaret E. Knight was not the first American woman to receive a patent even though Margaret is quoted as saying that. See further in this story for information on early patents awarded to women.  NO — as far as anyone knows her photograph is not CURRENTLY on the wall of the U.S. Patent Office. Note that the patent office has moved a few times and any wall art could easily have been discarded or sold off. By Margaret’s own admission it USED to be there, because she stated in a newspaper interview, that she saw it herself. NO — the many photographs and sketches that you see of her (youthful looking, throat or upper chest exposed, 1920-1940ish haircut) is NOT of her. Probably they are of a different Margaret Knight, but not this one. At the top of THIS story I have posted a genuine photograph of her taken by a newspaper photographer at the same time as she was personally interviewed.  NO — ‘Mattie’ is not a name she publicly used. ‘Mattie’ can be a nickname for Margaret but I could not find a shred of evidence that anyone called her that, and nothing in public records. It appears to have first been used by an author of children books, perhaps to make her seem more endearing. NO — Margaret Knight was not born in Manchester NH, she was born in “Old York” Maine but moved to Manchester New Hampshire as a young girl, before 1850 with her family when she is found in the U.S. Census records. In that year her mother would have given the census information and noted that her children were born in Maine.

—Early life of Margaret E. Knight—
Margaret E. Knight was born 14 Feb 1838 in “Old York” Maine, youngest child of James & Hannah (Teal) Knight. When she died on 12 October 1914 in Framingham Hospital,  Framingham MA, the newspapers touted her as ‘Woman Edison.” So much had happened to her in between those two dates, including the award of eighty-seven patents many of which were relating to rubber, cotton and shoe machinery.

By 1850 Margaret’s mother was a widow, and the family had moved to Manchester, New Hampshire. Margaret would probably have received public school education in both of those locations. By 1860 she was living in Boston MA (based on a patent submission) so her sojourn in New Hampshire was a little over 10 years. Then she lived in Framingham Massachusetts for twenty-five years, in a house at the corner of Hollis and Charles streets (per the Framingham Historical Society).  According to the Smithsonian magazine, Margaret’s idea for her paper bag machine came to her while working at the Columbia Paper Bag company, based in Springfield, Massachusetts [I can find no primary evidence of same. I find an entirely different Margaret E. Knight living in Springfield].

It was, however, in Manchester NH that she first began to show her inventive nature. By her own words, Margaret was 12 years old when she had created her first invention– “a stop-motion contrivance for preventing the steel-tipped shuttles of the mill looms from falling out and injuring operatives.” This idea came after a visit to a mill where her family members were employed. [I have found NO evidence that she actually worked in the mills as some claim. Indeed one brother and two brother-in-laws were working at the Manchester NH mills].

The 1850 U.S. census shows [see genealogy below] a 13-year old Margaret E. Knight living with her mother Hannah, older brother Charles (whose occupation was ‘mechanic’), her two sisters, Eliza and Mary and their husbands (one of whom was a ‘mechanic’ and the other a ‘machinist’), and her niece, Francena. There is no occupation listed beside her name, and so at least in 1850 she was not actively working in the mills. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think that the young Margaret watched and learned from her brother and brother-in-laws.  The ability to sketch designs as detailed as she did would not have happened miraculously, nor would such skills have been taught to her in the lower grade schools she attended.  But right there in her own household were three men with these talents who she probably learned from.

Editor’s Note: A mechanic at this time was a skilled worker who used tools to build or repair machinery. The mechanic was considered stronger in theory, while a machinist had more hands-on experience. A machinist was also the name for someone who operated machinery.

At this point I believe it is best for you to learn more about Margaret E. Knight from a 1912 Boston newspaper interview: Miss Margaret Knight of South Framingham, the first woman inventor to receive an American patent, believes her record of 87 inventions has never been approached by any other woman.

HAPPIEST EXPERIENCE. Although her latest invention, the sleeve valve motor, which she works on daily at her experiment rooms, 110 High street, Boston, will bring her more money than any other contrivance she has placed on the market, Miss Knight says the happiest moment of her career of more than 50 years was one day when, at the age of only 12 years, she perfected an improvement on the shuttle of weaving looms in the cotton mills of Manchester NH.

There is very little suggestions of the conventional picture of the inventor in Miss Knight’s personal appearance. Above the average woman’s height, strongly built, hair white and wavy, gentle in voice, Miss Knight does not look her 68 years. “I guess that I have never learned that value of publicity,” said Miss Knight when asked to recount a few incidents in her career. “For I never care to be interviewed. I like to produce results rather than talk about them. I suppose that it does seem odd that a woman should appear in the role of an inventor, but that’s the part I have played in this world for many years.”

HER FIRST INVENTION. “It’s easy to tell you my first experience. It was when I was but 12 years old. At that time, with members of my family, I lived in Manchester, N.H. where two of my brothers were overseers in one of the cotton mills. “Like other children, I was a good deal about the mill, running in and out during the day, and bringing my brothers their lunches at noon. “In those days the shuttles on the looms were steel tipped. One day there was an accident, the shuttle falling out and cutting someone severely. I noticed the happening and thought out a plan whereby it might be remedied. It was a simple contrivance, a short of stop motion that prevented any such happening as the one I witnessed.

“Thus you see that it was early in life that I showed an inclination to tinker and experiment with machinery. There was nothing in that first invention for me from a monetary viewpoint, but it increased my desire for further study of machinery.
“Then there came many other inventions, each in itself insignificant, but a considerable improvement to the particular machine of which it became a part.  “In 1871 I worked up and developed a machine for making and folding square-bottom paper bags. This machine was a success and is in use today.”

A list of Miss Knight’s inventions shows her talent as a mechanic is more diversified.
“I have obtained no less than 87 patents on my inventions” says Miss Knight. “Many of my inventions have been in use for several generations; contrivances applying to rubber, cotton and shoe machinery. These have sold for merely nominal sums.

“I have dealt with all types of engines since I bent my energies in that direction and have had the satisfaction of seeing many of my ideas adopted throughout the world.”
Miss Knight’s career as an inventor has been checkered by more than one lawsuit. A few years ago she figured in a titanic legal action over an engine invention. The trial consumed weeks. It resulted in a victory for Miss Knight. An idea of the expense she bore in fighting for her rights may be gleaned from the fact that it was necessary for her to have here a patent attorney from Washington. His fee was $100 a day and all expenses. Fifteen days elapsed before the attorney was able to return to the national capital.

“But I won the case,” said Miss Knight “and I have never contested a patent without receiving the award. “I have never been partial to any particular sort of engine. Steam, hot air, internal combustion and in fact every variety of engine has received my attention. I have even devised a gas turbine and a gas rotary engine. The latter is of the double principle like my sleeve valve motor. “It seems to me that I have always had a leaning toward the double sleeve principle. But at that I have thoughts nothing of it. It is not a new idea, you know. The Corliss engine of 40 years ago employed the double sleeves and they were used even in water pumps. The wonder is that anyone at this time can obtain a patent even on a gas engine embodying this principle.”

In token of her fame as the first woman inventor to obtain an American patent, Miss Knight’s portrait hangs in the United States patent office in Washington. An interesting story is attached to the placing of the picture there. Some years ago, shortly after Miss Knight had perfected a tin can contrivance that was seized avidly by the manufacturers of that article, her patent attorney in Washington asked Miss Knight for her photograph.
“He told me,” said Miss Knight, “that he intended it for his home, his wife having expressed a desire to have my picture. I suspected at that time that it was his intention to use the photograph in advertising. When he assured me that such was not his plan I no longer demurred but sent on my picture, receiving his later. “Imagine my surprise when, on going to the patent office in Washington, I discovered that my picture was hanging on the wall. It was placed there, I was told, through the efforts of my attorney as a tribute to the first woman to receive an American patent.”

Miss Knight’s characteristic Yankee ingenuity reached a climax, she believes, when she perfected her sleeve valve motor. She has styled it the “K-D” engine, the K standing for her name–Knight and the D for Davidsons, her backers in her latest effort.
“The K-D- engine,” said Miss Knight to the [Boston newspaper] reporter, as she bent over the machine in her workshop, “is a sleeve valve engine, and differs from others of that type in two essential features. The valves, semi-circular in shape are arranged concentrically with the piston. They are located between the cylinder wall and the water jacket instead of between the piston and the cylinder walls, as in the case of other sleeve-valve engines which have been brought to commercial perfection. [She goes on to describe and detail some of the mechanical parts] … “The motor will develop 50 horsepower. “Miss Knight has patents pending on her latest engine. These, she says, will not be issued for some time. When the work is wholly completed, she will take steps to have the patents granted. Then, she said, she will start working on some other contrivance. “And like the 87 I have completed,” said Miss Knight, “it will be useful.”

Margaret E. Knight had 6 patents for improvements on rotary engines in 1902. Reportedly a  1915 posthumous patent assigned inventions to the Knight-Davidson Motor Co., Saratoga NY, in which relatives had a financial stake.   According to a news article in the Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge LA 23 an 1994 “The only car to use Margaret Knight’s sleeve-valve engine was a single pilot model of the K-D (Knight-Davidson) car, displayed at the 1913 Boston Auto Show.

The Bangor Daily News newspaper (Bangor Maine) of 23 Apr 1983  p 41 stated in an article that “She appears to have reaped no great fortune from her creativity; her estate was appraised at a mere $275 and some change.” She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.

According to the National Women’s History Museum, Sybilla Righton Masters was an American inventor and the first person residing in the American colonies to be given an English patent (1715), and possibly the first known female Caucasian machinery inventor in America. [Note that this was an English patent, technically not an American one].

On May 5, 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to receive an AMERICAN patent (for a new way to braid straw). According to Mary Kies’ original patent file was destroyed in a tragic fire at the Patent Office in 1836. By 1840, approximately 20 U.S. patents had been issued to women, mostly for inventions related to cooking, tools and clothing.

For a list of additional women who received early patents in the United States, see “Women inventors to whom patents have been granted by the United States government, 1790 to July 1, 1888,” by United States Patent Office, 1888.


John Knight 1602-1674 Newbury MA & Sarah Hawkins
John Knight
& Bathsheba Ingersoll
Benjamin Knight & Abigail Jacques
Isaac Knight & Mary Gooding
Anthony Knight & Elizabeth Adams
Benjamin Knight & Mary E. Walker
Anthony Knight & Mercy Tibbetts

—Next Generation—

James Knight, son of Anthony & Mercy (Tibbetts) Knight, b 13 Feb 1795 in Portland Maine d bef 1850; m. 21 March 1818 in York Maine to Hannah Teal, daughter of Thomas & Margaret (Goodwin) Teal  She b. abt 1799, d 31 May 1860 at Holyoke MA of consumption, buried Manchester NH.
Boston Herald 4 June 1860 Boston MA p 4
DIED. In this city, 31st ult. of consumption. Hannah Knight, 61 yrs, 14ds. Carried to Manchester, N.H.
1850 US Census > NH > Hillsborough > Manchester
Hannah Knight 51 F Maine
Charles H. Knight 19 mechanic Maine
E.R. Leavitt 27 mechanic NH
Elisa E. Leavitt 21 Maine
Charles Knox 32 machinist Maine
Mary F. Knox 23 Maine
Francena Knox 5 New Hampshire
Margarett E. Knights 13 Maine
1910 US Census > MA > > Framingham
Margaret E. Knight Head F 62 Maine
Eliza E. Leavitt sister F 80 Maine
Olivia A. Knox niece F 45 NH
Eliza G. McFarland Boarder F 94 MA
Ada C. Murray niece F 37 Canada
Children of James & Hannah (Teal) Knight: (more children possible)
1. Alphonso/Alphonzo Knight b 1822 York Maine; d. 4 June 1859 in Lynn MA. He m. 30 Nov 1843 in Lowell MA to Jane H. Dickey. 4 children: Charles A., William Dickey, Medora Jane, Henetta.
2. Mary F. Knight b abt 1827 Maine; m. 26 Dec 1844 in Manchester NH to Charles Knox.
3. Eliza/Elisa Emily Knight-Leavitt, b 1 June 1829 So. Berwick Maine. She m. Enoch B. Leavitt. Died 8 April 1912 So. Framingham MA.
4. Charles H. Knight, b abt 1831 Maine; d. 15 July 1872 in Holyoke MA; overseer. He m. 6 Sep 1857 in Manchester NH to Kate F. Coburn.
5. Margarett E. Knight(s) b 14 Feb 1838 Old York Maine.  Died 12 October 1914 in Framingham Hospital, Framingham MA, Her occupation on her death certificate is “Mechanical inventor” She is buried in Newton Cemetery, Newton MA.  This story is about her, see above.


Smithsonian Magazine: Meet The Female Inventor Behind Mass-Market Paper Bags

National Museum of American History: Putting A face to the Invention


This entry was posted in Genealogy, History, New Hampshire Inventors, New Hampshire Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Woman Edison” Inventor: Margaret E. Knight of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts

  1. John says:

    Hi Janice: John Clayton here from the MHA. Just wanted you to know that our staff was fascinated by your post on Margaret Knight. As you may know, we have a flying shuttle display here at the Millyard Museum to celebrate her work. The image on the piece is an illustration of a young Margaret, but our Museum Educator, Kristy Ellsworth, has searched heaven and earth to find an actual photo of Margaret but with no success. When she saw the photo in your piece, she signed up for an on-line newspaper archive in hopes of finding the photo, so I’m writing to ask if you could provide the date of the 1912 photo you have and, since there were about 27 newspapers in Boston back then, the name of the publication as well. In advance, many thanks for considering this request. My email is jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org

Leave a Reply