John Isaac Hawkins

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Hawkins portable grand piano of 1800

John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1855) was an inventor who practised civil engineering. He was known as the co-inventor of the ever-pointed pencil, an early mechanical pencil, and of the upright piano.

Early life[edit]

Hawkins was born 14 March 1772 at Taunton, Somerset, England,[1] the son of Joan Wilmington and her husband Isaac Hawkins,[2] a watchmaker. The father, Isaac Hawkins, would become a Wesleyan minister, but was expelled by John Wesley; and after moving the family to Moorfields in London he was a minister in the Swedenborgian movement, which John Isaac would also follow.[3][4] John Isaac emigrated to the United States about 1790,[5] attending the College of New Jersey,[6] where he studied medicine and later, chemical filtration.[1]

Hawkins married in New Jersey, and was living at Bordentown and Philadelphia. In his own account, he was influenced by work of Georg Moritz Lowitz to try charcoal for filtration purposes, and ran an exhibition on the topic, with Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale, in the Philadelphia Exchange Coffee House.[7] He operated a non-vocational craft school in Bristol, Pennsylvania from about 1800;[8] and he collaborated on inventions with Rev. Burgess Allison.[9]

In London[edit]

Hawkins returned to England in 1803,[10] and opened a London sugar refinery. He also worked as a patent agent and consultant at this period.[9] He set up a museum of "useful mechanical inventions", featuring a number of his own, as reported in the Monthly Magazine in 1808.[11] He also continued inventing and performed "experiments of a delightfully awful character".[12] As a Swedenborgian, he associated with Manoah Sibly, becoming secretary of the "London Conference" in 1814 when Sibly was president.[13] He took an interest in phrenology from 1815, for the rest of his life.[14] Hawkins and his wife adopted from the workhouse a child, James Chalmers, orphaned after his parents had entered the Poyais project of Gregor MacGregor; he died young.[15]

Hawkins joined the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1824.[9] In 1825, he went to Vienna to superintend the construction of a beet sugar works there, and subsequently did the same in Paris.[16] Back in London, where his wife Anna died in 1838,[17] he superintended the construction of the Thames Tunnel under Isambard Kingdom Brunel.[18] Hawkins also served as president of the Anthropological Society of London, a phrenological group.[19][20][21]

Later life[edit]

Later in life Hawkins fell into debt[18] and concluding that America presented a better opportunity to profit from his patents, he decided to re-emigrate, departing in autumn 1848.[22] Returning to New Jersey, "as a grey old man" he lived with his third wife "who was barely out of her teens". Lectures there for local ladies could not survive their disapproval of his display of human skulls or the preserved organs of his deceased adopted son, his only child, whom he had dissected following the boy's death at age seven.[23] He published the Journal of Human Nature and Human Progress, but this was short-lived, and he died in poverty[24] and relative obscurity at Rahway[18] or Elizabethtown, New Jersey, 28 June 1855.[22]


Hawkins was the first to see the importance of using iron in pianoforte framing. He was living in Philadelphia when he invented and first produced the pianino or cottage pianoforte – the "portable grand" as he then called it – which he patented in 1800.[25] Thomas Jefferson bought one, of 5½ octaves, for $264.[26]

There had been upright grand pianos as well as upright harpsichords, the horizontal instrument being turned up on its wider end and a keyboard and action adapted to it. William Southwell, an Irish piano-maker, had in 1798 tried a similar experiment with a square piano, to be repeated in later years by William Frederick Collard of London; but Hawkins was the first to make a piano, or pianino, with the strings descending to the floor, the keyboard being raised. His instrument was in a complete iron frame, independent of the case; and in this frame, strengthened by a system of iron resistance rods combined with an iron upper bridge, his sound-board was entirely suspended. An apparatus for tuning by mechanical screws regulated the tension of the strings, which were of equal length throughout. The action, in metal supports, anticipated Robert Wornum's in the checking, and later ideas in a contrivance for repetition. This bundle of inventions was brought to London and exhibited by Hawkins himself; but the instrument was poor in tone.[25]

Other inventions, proposals and works[edit]


  1. ^ a b R. L. Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg, p. 1217
  2. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, pp. 11, 14
  3. ^ Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg, pp. 1216, 1218
  4. ^ Peter J. Lineham, The Origins of the New Jerusalem Church in the 1780s, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 1988;70(3):109–122; online as PDF, at pp. 115–6.
  5. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, 14
  6. ^ Robert Palmieri, Margaret W. Palmieri and Igor Kipnis, Encyclopedia of Keyboard Instruments, 2nd Edition, Taylor & Francis, 2003, vol. 2, p. 167
  7. ^ John Claudius Loudon (editor), The Architectural Magazine, vol. 5 (1838), p. 659; Google Books.
  8. ^ Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, p. 200-1
  9. ^ a b c A. W. Skempton (editor), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: 1500–1830 (2002), pp. 305–6; Google Books.
  10. ^ Gerald T. Koeppel, Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire
  11. ^ Monthly Magazine and British Register, vol. 25 (1808), p. 445; Google Books.
  12. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, 14–15
  13. ^ Carl Theophilus Odhner, Annals of the New Church (1904), p. 241;
  14. ^ Roger Cooter, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: phrenology and the organization of consent in nineteenth-century Britain (1984), p. 285; Google Books.
  15. ^ The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, vol. 7 (1832),p. 14; Google Books.
  16. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, 16
  17. ^ The Intellectual Repository for the New Church (July/Sept. 1817), continued as The Intellectual Repository and New Jerusalem Magazine (1839) p. 277; Google Books.
  18. ^ a b c Thompson, Reminiscences, 17
  19. ^ Waterloo page on the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
  20. ^ The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, no. 49, vol. 10 (1837)), p. 244; Google Books.
  21. ^ The Christian Physician and Anthropological Magazine (1835);
  22. ^ a b Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg, p. 1218
  23. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, 16–18
  24. ^ Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg, p. 1219
  25. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  26. ^ Charles H. Kaufman, Music in New Jersey, 1655–1860: a study of musical activity and musicians in New Jersey from its first settlement to the Civil War (1981), p. 161; Google Books.
  27. ^ "Explanation of Mr. Jn\o I. Hawkins Physiognotrace" Letter to T. Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peal (On website of Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation)
  28. ^ “Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles”: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw Archived 11 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine Describes the methods of using the Physiognotrace
  29. ^ The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America by Wendy Bellion (MIT Communications Forum)
  30. ^ Andrea Seabrook, "Obama Wields His ... Autopen?"
  31. ^ Murphy D. Smith, Due Reverence: antiques in the possession of the American Philosophical Society (1992), p. 37; Google Books.
  32. ^ David Getsy, Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain, c. 1880–1930 (2004), p. 142; Google Books.
  33. ^ Mapping the Profession of Sculpture, Benjamin Cheverton.
  34. ^ Henry Christmas, George Augustus Frederick Fitzclarence, The Literary Gazette, vol. 21 (1837), p. 593; Google Books.
  35. ^ The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, vol. 13, issues 73–78 (1808), p. 43; Google Books.
  36. ^ The Repertory of Patent Inventions (1826), pp. 31–6; Google Books.
  37. ^ University of Rochester page on context for the Brunel tunnel.
  38. ^ Sholto Percy, Mechanics' Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, vol. 27 (1837), p. 32; Google Books.
  39. ^ Elisabeth Bennion, Antique Medical Instruments, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979, p. 244 Google Books.
  40. ^ Stein, Harold A. (2012). The Ophthalmic Assistant: A Text for Allied and Associated Ophthalmic Personnel (9th ed.). Philadelphia: Elsevier Mosby. p. 205. ISBN 978-1-4557-3346-0.
  41. ^ The Repertory of Patent Inventions vol. 5 (1828), p. 219; Google Books.
  42. ^ "Pens", The New International Encyclopædia, vol. 13, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1903, pp. 883–4 [1]
  43. ^ William Mattieu Williams, Science Notes: John Isaac Hawkins and Brain Growth, in Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 258, January–June 1885, p. 510;
  44. ^ US Patent 5271289 Archived 12 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine – Non-involute gear, with reference to Hawkins's translation of "A Treatise on the Teeth of Wheels"
  45. ^ Thompson, Reminiscences, p. 15
  • R. L. Tafel, Documents Concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, vol. 2, part 2, London: Swedenborg Society, 1877, p. 1217 [2]
  • Samuel Thompson, Reminiscences of a Canadian Pioneer for the Last Fifty Years: An Autobiography, Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Company, 1884, pp. 11, 14 [3]
  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Pianoforte" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Pianoforte". Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 559–574.