This past weekend the National Grocer’s Association hosted the 30th Annual Best Baggers Contest Finals and those paper bags used at grocery stores across the country – the machine that made their use possible – invented by a woman.
Margaret Knight was born in 1838 and at the age of 12 her first invention was inspired after seeing an accident at a textile mill. Her device automatically stopped a machine if something became caught in it and was quickly incorporated into mills across the country. A few years later, in 1868, while working at a bag factory she concluded that there must be a faster way of producing the flat-bottomed bags that were made by hand and therefore very costly.
She spent three years working on her design and building a working wooden model, but to receive a patent she needed an iron model which she hired a machine shop to create. After the first iron prototype was created she took it to a different shop to refine and eventually filed for a patent only to have it rejected. It seems a man visiting the first machine shop had seen Knight’s machine and copied it and claimed the patent for himself.
After expensive litigation in a patent interference lawsuit she was able to show evidence that she had in fact invented the machine and was granted the patent in 1871. Thus an entire industry was changed with the ability to mass produce what are now called self-opening bags. Stores saw the appeal of being able to bag customers’ purchases rather than the time consuming task of wrapping them with paper and twine and began using the bags quickly.
Her bag-folding machine was only the first of over 25 patents held before her death in 1914. For her work she was inducted into both the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame and the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. So, next time you grab a quick lunch from your favorite fast-food establishment take a minute when you pick up your bag to think of Margaret Knight and her amazing inventions.
Written by Angela Goad