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Just Imagine…Equity and Intellectual Property

Margaret E. Knight in her experimenting room in 1912

Imagine you’re at the grocery store. You are getting ready to put your purchases into a paper bag. The bag is narrow and the bottom comes to a point like an envelope. The bag burst with just a few items. You think to yourself, there must be a better way. That’s what Margaret (Mattie) Knight thought, so she did something about it.

When Mattie was a child, she played with wood-working tools and enjoyed making items for her brothers. After her father died, Mattie left school to work in a cotton mill. It was the early nineteenth century and it was common for children to work in the mills. When she was 12, she witnessed a worker being killed when a shuttle broke free from the loom and impaled the worker. She developed what we would call today a kill switch to prevent future situations like this one. The device was never patented. Every machine today has such preventive technologies.

Mattie eventually went to work for a manufacturer of paper bags. That’s when she came up with the idea of a bag with a flat bottom. She also invented the machine to make the bag. Mattie’s prototype was made of wood, so she asked a machinist to make one of iron. He did and stole her idea and filed for, and won, a patent on the machine and bag. Mattie filed a lawsuit and four years later was awarded the patent.

Mattie continued her career as an inventor and is credited with 87 patents. Most of her patents are still in use today as her original work or adaptations. She never profited from her inventions due to her gender. Some of her inventions are very sophisticated, including those for rotary engines. Other inventions included a window frame and sash, which you will still find in older homes, machines for making shoes, and a clasp for robes. She is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

When we discuss issues of equity, you rarely hear discussion of the equity concerns associated with intellectual property. But there have been many remarkable innovations by women and persons of color. Rarely have the innovators benefitted from their ideas as white males have benefitted. This inequity has continued today. Businesses based upon the innovations of women and men of color find it difficult to secure investment capital.

Just imagine how much more innovative our economy would be if we were to make the development of intellectual property equally accessible to all persons. The ideas are there, but the support systems are lacking. Just imagine what it would take to make it possible for the Matties of our country to truly benefit from their genius.

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“I’m only sorry I couldn’t have had as good a chance as a boy, and have been put to my trade regularly.” – Margaret Knight

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.