Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Celebrating St Valentine's Day - differently.

The fourteenth of February strikes me as a good moment for a man to pay tribute to a woman. Though, in this case, not for the obvious reason. Or, for that matter, for the obvious woman.

Most people have heard of Thomas Edison, the great American inventor. The phonograph and the telephone were among his best-known achievements. He also worked on electricity distribution though, ironically, he backed the use of direct current as opposed to alternating current, the form ultimately adopted and to which he eventually converted.

He even tried to expose alternating current by inventing a device to electrocute living beings, to show just how dangerous a form of electricity it was. Unfortunately, this had precisely the opposite effect. With many of his compatriots only too keen on killing others, his device was adopted with enthusiasm and he found that he'd inadvertently invented the electric chair.

Less well-known than Edison is Margaret Knight, sometimes thought of as "the female Edison".

She was born, on 14 February 1838, in the US state of Maine. With only limited education, she went to work at the age of 12 in a cotton mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. That was where her talent for invention first emerged. She saw a fellow worker injured by a steel-tipped shuttle that was flung out of a mechanical loom. She invented a safety device to stop that happening again and, though, we don't know what it consisted of and she never patented it, the invention was adopted by other mills throughout the town.

Margaret Eloise Knight 
"The Female Edison"
The invention for which she is most to be celebrated, however, was a process for cutting and gluing the foldable paper bag. Because it is foldable, it packs very small. Because it is biodegradable, it doesn't have the same disastrous effect on the environment as plastic bags - David Attenborough, in his recent Blue Planet II series reveals how plastic is causing havoc among sea creatures. So it's both a useful invention and one whose time has come around, again.

Rather more constructive an invention than, say, the electric chair, I can't help feeling. But that may just be me.

So, on this Valentine's day, I raise my glass to Margaret Knight on her 180th birthday and remember her fondly. That great invention of hers never died out in the US but it's practically vanished in Europe. It's time to reintroduce it.

I appreciate that this is not perhaps as romantic a sentiment as is generally associated with this day. But it's just as heartfelt.

A fine invention. Useful and highly topical

No comments: