You've never heard of her, yet until fairly recently, one of her inventions was an unavoidable part of your life: Marget E. Knight is the person who realized a flat-bottomed paper bag would hold a lot more than a flat bag and proceeded to invent a machine to automatically cut, fold and glue them, not too long after the end of the U.S. Civil War.
Who was she, some kind of engineer? --Well, some kind, I suppose, but she'd left school at the age of 12 to work in the textile mills of her native New England; her first invention was a device to improve worker safety on looms, variously described as a "covered shuttle" or "stop-motion device,"* and widely used (yes, by those grasping, greedy capitalists...who didn't like having to stop a machine or an entire mill to untangle a mangled worker, train her replacement, etc.: it turns out that safety saves!). Later on, she went to work in a paper bag factory, where the notion of the flat-bottomed bag occurred to her. --She almost didn't get the patent, when the machinist she hired to build an all-metal Patent Office model from her wooden prototype stole the design instead and tried to patent it himself! In 1871, she won the patent interference claim on the strength of her detailed, dated notes -- which does indeed make her some kind of an engineer in my opinion.
Never wealthy, never a fancy "inventor" with an office and a staff, Margaret E. Knight is nevertheless one of my heroines, a systematic thinker who saw things through.
* Dagnabbed non-technical historians! Where's Henry Petroski when we need him? Already there, as it happens: he has some coverage of Ms. Knight's work in "Small Things Considered," but I don't have the book. Yet.
8 months ago