We begin this New Year with beginning of the second Book of our Torah: Shemot, most often translated Exodus,when in fact it means Names. Besides the names of our ancestors listed in chapter one, the heroines of chapters one and two are five women. Two have their names recorded. Three others do not.
Shifra and Pua are the midwives who refuse to kill male Hebrew newborns for Pharaoh. There are three other women who play heroic roles in these first two chapters whose names are not given: the baby’s mother, the baby’s sister (or near relative) and Pharaoh’s daughter who saves Moses and raises him as her own.
In a book called Names.There is a refusal by our scripture to name these women. Is it because of modesty? Perhaps the idea is that keeping these heroic women anonymous allows for women readers to place their names in the story. In other words, women reading this story can elicit from this story that they have the capability of acting heroic. Perhaps the most plausible reason these women have no names is because they have been forgotten over time? And so, as we begin a New Year, as California enforces a new law for pay equality for those women who have notreceived their due, I tell a story of a woman that time has forgotten.
The Story of Margaret Knight (1838-1914)
(Adapted from a story told by Nate Dimeo on The Memory Palace podcast)
The mind would wander. How could it not in the mill? 12-14 hours a day … Same chattering machines, same co-workers, same smells. Flex of thread: Reds and browns and blues. The clack and shoosh of the looms. Same rough tug of soft cotton on callused fingers as she built another bolt of cloth,thread by thread, day after day after day. The minds of the women in the mill would wander, as their eyes would drift to the frosted winter glass of the window. You have to get your mind back to the loom right now so that the machine does not jam, so you do not hurt yourself. So you don’t forget for a moment those movements you can feel in your sleep; the rough tug of soft cotton on callused fingers.
Yet the mind would wander. And wonder if there is a better life for you? Wondered how the dollars you would make in a week that began the days before dawn and ended after the sun set, would ever add up. Would ever buy you more than a brush or a book, some brief distraction brought home in a paper bag. Wonder how you are ever supposed to meet a man to marry, to take you away from the mill, when all you saw all day were women and men you were not aloud to speak with.from those fleeting thoughts your mind would wander back to the machine and the chattering; day after day and on and on and on.
Margaret Knight’s mind would wander. How could it not? She was 12 and new to this mill in Manchester, NH. Perhaps it would wander to her mother in the cold,left to attend to her farm since her father had died. Was the mill any better? At least there was the warmth of other bodies on the benches, despite the chattering of the looms. At least there were the tufts of cotton, the colored flex of thread, the flooring about the room – pretty in a way. The other girls and women would have told her not to let her mind wander to keep her head down,keep her eyes on her work. Don’t worry about the tug of soft cotton on her soft fingers. The calluses would come; but her mind would wander back to her school.She loved school. But those days were over now. Back to the wooden toys she had made, the sled she designed and then built for her brothers, that they all would take to the hill on the farm on winter days like this, before she came to work in the mill.
Her mind would wander. But she was alert to see one day. A Woman working her loom and see the shuttle – the metal piece that would move the thread between the warp and the weft – shoot out across the room and tear into a man’s face and drop him to the ground. She saw him taken away. Saw someone clean up the blood. And heard the looms resume their chattering.
That night Margaret’s mind wandered, wandered back to that day. To the man on the ground, to the blood on the floor, and the machines whose movements she had come to know and whose parts could picture so clearly and take apart in her head, move them around; understanding intuitively that one was connected to another. What would happen if those connections changed? She could do that. How many people in her twelve years could do such things in their heads? How many people at the mill would have had a moment to notice it? How many teachers in New Hampshire would have thought to cultivate that in a young girl in 1850?
Someone at the mill took Margaret Knight seriously. She came in with a wooden object; an invention she came up with when her mind was wandering and caused the machines to stop automatically when things went wrong. And somehow her device became standard in all looms for decades to come. Not that Margaret Knight profited from it. It is easy to understand why. Her family knew nothing of patents and what those numbers marked on those machines meant. And she was a girl.
History loses track of this girl in the mill and finds her again as a women about 28 years old working in a paper bag factory in Springfield, Mass. It tells us little about how she spent the years between the mill and the factory, seeing all the looms with those safety devices of her design, or if her mind wondered about the money some man made selling it to all those mill owners, while she, herself were turning hours of her life into pennies and slowly stitching them into dollars.
I can tell you only that in those lost years she worked and in1867 she spent nearly every hour of nearly every day folding and gluing and cutting paper in the Columbia paper bag factory. We do know that the rules were the same as in the textile mill. Keep your head down, don’t let your mind wander, and we know she couldn’t help it. For two years Margaret Knight’s mind would wander to a single idea: a machine, with gears and cranks. She put the pieces together in her head, while she folded and glued and cut. Then at night, or at lunch she would take a piece of paper. There was certainly plenty of paper around. She would put the idea down. At home, she took some wood and took that idea – a paper bag-making machine – and built it in miniature. Then sent off to a machinist in Boston, to make a model with tiny gears, that when turned could turn a tiny sheet of paper into a tiny paper bag. When she went to send her model and her idea with an application to the patent office, she was told not to bother. An identical machine had already been submitted and was about to be approved.
So Margaret went to a lawyer. They figured out that a man in the machine shop had seen her model and was so impressed that he made his own and passed it off as his own. The lawyer also said it would cost $100 a day to take this to patent court. That was ten times the amount of money Margaret made in a week. But Margaret had been working at jobs she could not have liked and being told to keep her head down and for her remarkable mind not to wander. So for 16 days and $1600Margaret Knight fought for her patent number.
The argument of the man (Charles Anan) who stole her design was that it had to be his design as he was a he. This was a complicated ingenious machine, beyond the comprehension or capacity of any women. Margaret Knight took the stand, showed the patent judge her notes, and wooden model, and told him how it all worked, and told him perhaps only a woman who had spent hour after hour, day after day, folding, gluing and cutting would be so driven as to invent a machine that would free her from the cutting, folding and gluing.She won and was issued patent number 116,842, the first American patent to a woman in the 19th century. She licensed her design to a paper bag company for $2500 and for $25,000 in royalties. It was enough to pay her legal bills;but more importantly, it was enough to give her time for her mind to wander.
The New York Times caught up with her in 1913. She was 70years old, had designed 89 inventions and patented 27 of them. Among them were for a dress and skirt shield, a machine to manufacture shoes, a rotary engine, a numbering machine
She never married. Maybe she did not want to. Maybe she could not find the right man to fit into this life. Or perhaps she did not need one. When she died a year later a local obituary honored her as a “woman Edison”.
Margaret Knight never became wealthy, although later in life she appeared to enjoy a creative life, and for those who hear this story, perhaps she has provided a positive role model for other girls.