Sunday, March 11, 2012

Margaret Knight, aka "Lady Edison"

March 9 - Today's post provided by Monica Kulling
     How did I, a Canadian born and raised in British Columbia, wind up writing biographies of the famous (and the not-so-famous) figures in American history? I’ve always been fascinated by the United States, partly, I suspect, because I grew up so close to the Washington-state border. Weekend car trips to Bellingham, Seattle, and Tacoma were frequent when I was growing up. It was simpler to cross the border in those days.
Serendipity, which Marty Rhodes Figley mentioned in her post, also played a large part in how I came to write biographies. I certainly wasn’t heading in that direction when I finished my creative writing degree at the University of Victoria and launched myself into a writing career. I was intent on writing poetry and, imagine, making a living at it! I was also trying my hand at writing fiction for children, which I had begun to do in my final year at university after taking a course on the subject and falling in love with the literature. I published my first book for children, a picture book entitled I Hate You, Marmalade, in 1992.
In the early 1990s, I had sent Bobbi Katz, a children’s poet and editor at Random House, a manuscript of my poetry. Random House did not publish my collection, but Bobbi liked my poems and called to ask whether I would like to write an adaptation of Little Women? Would I? Could I?! I did, and it was fun! Then, another Random House editor, Lori Haskins Houran, asked me whether I’d consider writing a biography of Amelia Earhart. I had loved reading biographies as a kid. Aside from Beverly Cleary’s books, they were the only books I read. I’d pull down those musty volumes, not overly kid-friendly in those days, and learn about Madame Curie or Edith Cavell. These women inspired me to think outside my circumstances, to imagine what real courage might look like, and to ask myself how I might one day be able to be a little more than I thought possible. Biographies are still my favorite reading for that same reason.
But could I write a biography? I had never considered it. How would I begin? It seemed a mammoth task to convey the facts and flavor of a person’s life in words. But Lori, who accompanied her request with sample books and loads of information, was patient as she led me through the steps of portraying a personality on paper. Vanished! The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart is now out of print, but writing it was a great learning experience for me, and that first biography encouraged me to write many more. I went on to write about Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Harriet Tubman, Francis Scott Key, and even two inventors, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell.

In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up is the third book in my “Great Idea” series, published by Tundra Books. The series would present a totally lopsided view of the history of invention if it didn’t include major contributions by women. Margaret E. Knight, called “Lady Edison” because of the many patents she garnered throughout her lifetime, was only twelve years old when she grasped the workings of a loom and invented a device to keep the shuttles from flying helter skelter, thus injuring workers. Margaret’s father had bequeathed her his toolbox, and Margaret was known for making the best kites and sleds in town. That toolbox was her talisman, a lifeline to her inventive mind, and the anchor that kept her strong in her resolve to do what was in her to do.

You might ask, what’s so special about the paper bag? Think about it. As celebrated in William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much depends on those things that appear insignificant, but are, in reality, the lynch pins of more complicated endeavors. The entire department store revolution of the 1950s and the brown-bag lunch brigade would be nowhere without the invention of the humble paper bag. The paper bag is a thing of simple and convenient beauty, and seems to be making a comeback.
There aren’t many women inventors who stand out in the time period that interests me most, the late 19th century. When I searched for women inventors, I came up with a few, but they were known for only one invention — for example, Mary Anderson and her windshield wiper or Josephine Cochran and her dishwashing machine. When Josephine saw the need for such a machine, she said, "If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself." This grit and determination are exactly the qualities women inventors needed in abundance to ply their trade as inventors in a male-dominated field.
Illustration from In the Bag

Margaret Knight was determined to invent a machine that folded paper into a bag that could stand on its square bottom, a bag that could hold so much more than the envelope-shaped bags of her day. Machines fascinated Margaret, and making detailed notes was part of her process. It was lucky she did so, because the dastardly Charles Annan snatched her patent for the paper-bag machine right out from under her! Annan’s lame legal defense — “A woman couldn’t possibly have invented this machine because women don’t understand machines.”

Margaret Knight's Paper Bag Machine

Not only did Margaret Knight, the paper-bag queen, understand machines, she understood the mechanics of engineering and the process of invention. I am pleased to have met her and to have introduced her to young readers. Yes, girls can be inventors too!

Editor’s Note:
Monica Kulling has been publishing books for children for over twenty years.  She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her family.  You can learn more about Monica’s books at her website: 


  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Monica. I really enjoy the Great Idea series. Inventors are visionaries, often able to recognize a need that the general public does not. Once given an invention like the paper bag, however, we don’t know how we ever made do without it! Thankfully, Margaret Knight was able to prove ownership of her idea; and you were able to share it with us. Lisa

  2. I am very interested in learning more about this author -- Monica Kulling -- as it is with great honour and pleaure that I am illustrating one of her upcoming Great Ideas series books: Making Contact! Marconi Goes Wireless. Telling stories from history in words and pictures is what interest me most -- and Monica sure writes good stories.

  3. Margaret Knight's story is amazing. I think children, especially girls, need to be exposed to the possibility of being in the field of technology/engineering. What a great way to introduce that possibility.