• John Bessant

Bags of ideas

David Attenborough was on TV last night, another wonderful documentary called ‘ A perfect planet’.  The core theme is how diverse forces work together to keep things in balance – and while he highlights some of the ways in which Nature does this it isn’t hard to pick up on our own role in shaping the future of the planet.  Images from his other films have increasingly drawn attention to what he calls ‘an unfolding catastrophe’ – and nowhere is that more visible than in the case against plastics.  Our love of convenience has led us to a situation where discarded plastic waste is polluting coastlines, disturbing ecosystems and strangling coral reefs. 

Not surprisingly it’s making people think twice about how to cut back on the estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste finding its way into the oceans every year. And one place we’re seeing this mood converted into action is at the supermarket checkout; legislation in many countries has imposed charges and restrictions on the use of plastic bags.  In their place we’re seeing the return of the humble paper bag. 

Stores like Morrisons in the UK have reintroduced sturdy bags capable of carrying up to 16kg without spilling your groceries all over the car park, and they estimate that their policy will save nearly 4000 tonnes of waste each year.  Given that supermarkets had been giving away nearly 8 bn plastic bags, (around 40 per household per year) in the UK alone switching to paper could have a big impact.  That seems to be borne out by the market growth data; currently the global paper bag market is worth around $5bn and is predicted to grow to $6.35 by 2025. 

It’s not a new idea; from very early times the value of wrapping goods has been clear.  When you’re trying to carry home multiple items which exceed the capacity of our hands to hold them without dropping then some form of container becomes essential.  You could, of course, bring your own shopping bag but the rise of convenience shopping and the supermarket brought with it the need for something to be available at the shopping counter.  A lightweight strong simple device – the paper bag.

Simple, perhaps – but one nonetheless with plenty of scope for innovation.  In the early days shopkeepers would fashion their own, cutting, folding and gluing sheets of paper to make bags.  But that’s time consuming and not so easy when you have a queue of people in the shop; the need for keeping a stock of bags ready to use created the commercial possibilities for an industry.  History suggests that the first large-scale manufacture of paper bags took place in Bristol in the UK in 1844; by 1852 Francis Wolle of Pennsylvania had patented ‘a machine for making bags of paper’ and the industry was off and running.

Although his machine did the job, cutting, folding and gluing paper from a roll to make bags at the rate of 1800 per hour, they were far from perfect.  They weren’t particularly strong and they couldn’t hold very much; there was plenty of space in this fluid stage of the technology for improvements and variations on the innovation theme. 

The main limitation of Wolle’s deisgn was that the bag was really an envelope into which a limited amount could be stuffed.  The breakthrough – and the dominant design which characterised paper bags  for decades to come – came in 1870.    A production line worker at the Columbia Paper Bag Company of Springfield, Massachusetts began thinking about the problem. 

Her name was Margaret Knight and her ideas led to a machine that could produce flat bags that could be unfolded quickly to create the square-bottomed paper bag we still use today. The design had many advantages – the bags could be quickly unfolded and stand upright leaving the hands free to pack.  And they had  a much larger capacity.  Adoption of this design spread quickly, given an extra impetus by the fact that it was possible to print on the flat bags and so open up the possibilities of advertising.

Hers wasn’t just a single bright idea dreamed up while making bags on the shop floor.  She already had a track record of innovation and she’d learned the craft well.  Born in 1838 in Maine to a poor family she had little in the way of formal schooling but as a child she was renowned for her toy making skills, producing excellent kites and sledges. 

Her father died when she was young and the family moved to Manchester New Hampshire where she worked in a number of jobs to help support them.  And while working in a local cotton mill the 12 year old had a frightening experience which pushed her into the world of industrial innovation.  She witnessed an appalling accident in which a steel shuttle flew off one of the looms and stabbed a nearby worker.  It prompted her to develop a safety device to prevent this happening and persuaded friends to help her make a prototype; she succeeded, her idea worked and it was widely adopted by other textile mills in the area.  Unfortunately she was too young to hold a patent and in any case had little understanding of the legal mechanics of doing so.  A hard lesson – but one which later served her well.

She’d arrived at the Columbia Paper Company after a series of jobs which had given her an appreciation of many different technologies and production processes. Her job involved folding every paper bag by hand – a slow process and one with a high potential for human error. During her long working day (10 hour shifts, monotonously folding and gluing) she had ample opportunity to think about how to improve the process – and by night she’d sketch out her ideas in the boarding house where she was living.  Within six months she’d managed to build a working prototype out of wood which could cut, fold and glue bags each time a crank was turned.  All those years of making sleds out of old wood for the neighbourhood kids was about to pay off.

This time she was determined to patent her idea.   But she quickly found that drawings and a wooden prototype weren’t enough; she was going to need a working iron machine to serve as proof of concept.  A local machinist helped her convert the wooden prototype into an iron machine; excited by her progress she moved to Boston to work further on the design with another jobbing machine shop.  Finally it was ready and , complete with drawings and machine she visited the Patent Office to register her claim – only to have it rejected.  An application for a very similar machine had already been filed by one Charles Annan.

She knew the name.  He was a machinist in the shop where she’d contracted her development work and she remembered talking with him about it.  Now it seems he had taken her ideas and run with them, all the way to the Patent Office.  He’d seen the potential in the design and had decided to copy it and pass it off as his own.  After all who would believe that a woman factory worker could produce something so clever and complex?

But Margaret Knight was tough as well as clever; she’d kept all her working drawings and was not going to surrender meekly.  In 1868 she filed a lawsuit against Annan and mounted a vigorous defence.  She mobilised everyone she could think of to testify to her abilities in machinery design.  Her old boss from Columbia company made a key contribution, recalling that the idea for such a machine came from a conversation between him and Knight – and that he’d subsequently become annoyed that she was spending so much time on her idea when she should have been making bags!  The Boston machinist who helped her with the iron prototype swore it came from her original wooden design.  And Knight herself was able to provide all her working drawings and calculations.

It was enough.  Although it cost her most of her savings she was vindicated and in 1869 was able to file her application; in 1871 she was granted US Patent 116842.  Significantly she was the first woman in the country to hold a patent.

She’d mastered the art of patenting well; in her application she was careful not to claim that she’d invented the paper bag but rather ‘a device to hold back or push back a point or portion of one side of the paper tube while the blade or tucking-knife forms the first fold”.  Being as specific as this helped her defend the idea and with the patent safely secured she sought out a business partner and founded the Eastern Paper bag company in Hartford Connecticut in 1870

It may have been an improvement innovation but its impact was radical. Her  invention revolutionized the paper bag industry by replacing the work of thirty people with one machine.  It provided the ‘dominant design’ around which others would innovate, helping accelerate progress along the trajectory she’d established.  Luther Crowell (who had patented an early machine in 1867) saw the potential in her design and improved on it, adding, in his 1872 patent several important features such as a bag top with unequal front and back sides which made it easier to open the bag. And a decade later, in 1883, Charles Stilwell patented the ‘self-opening sack’ which provided the model for the mass-produced paper bags we still use today.

The royalties and stock options she took from the business enabled Knight to continue working as an inventor; by the time of her death in 1914 she had also created a further 25 inventions including machinery for shoe-making, a device for fasting clothes and a novel window frame and sash.  She even contributed ideas to the emerging automobile industry, improving on the design of the internal combustion engine.  Like Henry Ford her gift was in building on ideas and seeing ways to improve them, making possible the scale in production and quality and cost which create a dominant design.  Not bad for a largely self-taught one-time toymaker.

There are some valuable lessons here for innovation management.  First the story reminds us once again of the power of user experience.  The person in a factory likely to know most about problems and how they might be solved is the worker most closely involved with it – as Margaret Knight was.  Employees as users of a process and makers of a product  are a rich source of ideas for its improvement. Not for nothing does Toyota make genchi genbutsu –  ‘go to the source’ – a core principle in their world-famous Production System.

But it isn’t just ideas; in her case it was her own drive which led her to persevere, putting her energies (and her life savings) into making the idea real.  As Toyota, 3M and a host of others have found, providing a helping hand and a pathway along which to channel that kind of passion can be a profitable innovation strategy.

It’s also a learning process which benefits from experimentation and prototyping.  Hers was not a theoretical approach to innovation; ever since she had started making toys she was an improviser.  Much of the problem solving comes from trying out prototypes which fail – something James Dyson (with his 5000 plus ‘failed’ prototypes) recognised.  What doesn’t work may well make your innovation stronger.

Another key lesson is about diversity; her background in so many different jobs helped give her novel insights.  Not least the core principles which she worked with came originally from upholstery where she’d worked before making paper bags.  These days crowdsourcing is fashionable and it certain brings many minds to help make light work of the innovation problem.  But the lesson we are learning is that it is less about the sheer volume of ideas than the diversity of them; asking the crowd increases our chance of a novel insight from an unexpected direction.

Innovation isn’t about a single bright idea; hers wasn’t the first paper bag machine nor the last; instead she put in place a dominant design around which others could focus in a self-reinforcing learning process which quickly helped the product move to mass scale.  By 1895 machines using the many improvements on her design were able to turn out over 3000 bags/hour, double what Wolle’s original machine had been capable of. And this time the bags were of high reproduceable quality,  strong enough to become the workhorses of the expanding retail industry.  (Today’s machines offer in excess of 7000 bags/hour and patents for improvements are still being registered).

So next time you pick up groceries and carry them home (or have them delivered) in sturdy brown paper bags spare a thought for Margaret Knight who not only made this possible but whose innovation may also help in our somewhat more important journey towards sustainability.

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