Downeast Genius

Downeast Genius

Downeast Genius

By Earl Smith

$17.95, softcover, nonfiction


In his book, Downeast Genius, Earl Smith explores the many inventors—both well-known and obscure—that have shaped the landscape of Maine ingenuity. Several of these inventors are women and Smith, a thorough, succinct historian, has given them the recognition they deserve and yet so rarely receive in the annals of invention and creation.

Margaret E. Knight, a Maine woman who filed more than eighty patents in her lifetime and one of the few to pave the way for future female inventors to claim their intellectual property, invented a machine that could create flat-bottomed paper bags when she was just thirty-two years old. Over one hundred and fifty years later, with Maine’s recent statewide plastic bag ban, Knight’s nineteenth-century invention has become even more significant. Knight was so prolific that she was dubbed a “woman Edison” in her 1914 obituary.

Helen Augusta Blanchard also took advantage of the industrialization of the United States in the 1800s, patenting a factory sewing machine that made sturdy buttonholes with zigzag stitches. Although the zigzag stitch is her most regarded creation Blanchard invented many other things but, like Knight, she faced a male-dominated patent system. After filing twenty-eight patents, Blanchard spent her golden years providing support and opportunities for the women workers who had been displaced by her machine improvements.

Blanchard is not the only woman acknowledged for using her influence and success for good in Downeast Genius. Isabel Greenwood, the wife of Chester Greenwood, inventor of the V-shaped hinge that kept earmuffs tight to the head, spent her life fighting for the rights of working women in textile mills and women’s suffrage. She may not have patented inventions like her husband, but she, like Blanchard, is a shining example of a Maine woman who benefited from a time of unchecked industrial growth and chose not to leave other women behind.

Smith discusses female inventors, as well as those whose contributions to their loved ones’ creations and legacy were vital, but never recorded in a US patent office. It was often the women of the industrial revolution and early twentieth century who sought to prevent technological progress from being beneficial to some and such a detriment to so many others. So often, the accomplishments of women go unnoticed and unacknowledged—their names ephemeral and their legacies anonymous. Downeast Genius offers readers an opportunity to learn a few of those names and helps to restore a few of those legacies.


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Hannah Johnston

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