The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Tokheim, John J.
(May 17, 1871–March 15, 1941)

–innovator, businessman, and inventor of the gasoline pump—was born in the town of Odda, in the Hardanger province of Norway. In 1887 he emigrated to America with two of his six brothers. They followed an older brother, Jorgen, who had left Norway in 1880. John Tokheim arrived in the United States at the age of 16 and worked on Jorgen's farm near Thor, Iowa, for most of the following year to repay his passage from Norway. He spent two more years working for Jorgen while attending country school, where he completed his education. From 1890 to 1894 he apprenticed as a sheet metal worker in Thor, earning room and board by working in the local hardware store. At night he studied mechanical drawings from lessons published in a sheet metal worker's magazine. He attended a six-month course at a Des Moines business college, then found work as a tinner in a Chicago factory in 1895. While in Chicago, he married his wife and lifelong business partner, Senva Eide.

    In 1896 John and Senva returned to Thor, where he started his own tin shop. He eventually expanded into well pumps and hardware and stocked gasoline and kerosene for lamps and stoves. Tokheim's annoyance with the gasoline and kerosene part of his business became the driving force behind his first invention. He disliked the messy "drum and spigot" method of storing and dispensing the liquids, and feared that they posed a fire hazard. Determined to find a better method of storage, Tokheim applied his knowledge of sheet metal work and the pumps he sold in his shop to the problem. By the spring of 1898, he had devised a plan for the underground storage of gasoline and constructed a tank for the purpose. He buried it in the ground outside of his store and piped it inside, where he attached a pump built from his own stock. In January 1900 he received his first patent for the "Visible Measuring Pump."

    Later that year, he organized the Tokheim Manufacturing Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He sold a large quantity of stock in the company to obtain the capital necessary to market and produce his product–a decision he later regretted–and proceeded to build it into a steady business. In 1902 Tokheim sold his hardware store in Thor and moved to Cedar Rapids to devote his full attention to the new enterprise. In 1910 Tokheim suffered a devastating blow when two multimillionaires, Walter D. Douglas and George F. Piper, took over the company and purchased all of the outstanding stock except for the 8/29 held by Tokheim himself. In a few short months, he was reduced from his position as president of the company to a superintendent on the factory floor. The following year he was forced out completely. The final separation agreement (1911) cost Tokheim practically everything. In one swift move, John Tokheim lost his factory, the bulk of his patents, and even the use of his own name, which he did not reclaim until 1918, when the company was sold and relocated to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

    Though disillusioned, Tokheim was not discouraged. He walked away from the 1911 takeover with only two small and seemingly unimportant patents: the "Vac" system for dispensing bulk cider/vinegar and the Liquid Level Tank Gauge, which was dismissed as having no practical purpose, though its value was profitably realized later, when Tokheim sold it for use in automobiles.

    Tokheim reopened for business under the name of the Vac Liquid Equipment Company, marketing his cider and vinegar pumps to wholesale groceries across the United States. Wary of another stock fiasco, Tokheim maintained complete ownership of his second venture, naming himself, his wife, and their daughter, Agnes, as the only stockholders. Turning his back squarely on the corporate world, he focused on building a small but efficient company that produced quality products for the niche markets he had developed.

    Between 1911 and 1939 Tokheim patented and produced many useful inventions that secured a place in history, including the first known electric gasoline pump as well as several patents for use in the dry-cleaning industry. In 1918 Tokheim was able to reclaim the use of his name and soon renamed his business the Tokheim Company, which he operated successfully until his death in 1941.

    John's daughter, Agnes, continued to operate the Tokheim Company until 1993, when it was sold to Barnes Manufacturing of Marion, Iowa. Prior to her death in 1994, she donated funds to Ushers Ferry Historic Village in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to construct an exhibit to honor her father's work and preserve and display many of his papers and personal possessions.
Sources include the Tokheim Papers, Ushers Ferry Historic Village, Cedar Rapids, which includes a typescript company history by Tokheim; Memoir of John J. Tokheim (1934); James Hippen and Steven Johnson, "John J. Tokheim, Inventor . . ." Vesterheim 3 (2005), 27–35; obituary, Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3/16/1941; Lonnie Zingula, "Gas Pump Invention Got Tokheim Started," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3/31/1996; "John Tokheim," in Centennial Book of Thor, Iowa (1981), 183; Corpo rate History Page, Tokheim Corporation Web site, www.tokheim.com; and Scott Anderson, "History of John J. Tokheim and the Tokheim Manufacturing Company," Petroleum Collectibles Monthly, November 2002, at www.pcmpublishing.com/articles/27.html.
Contributor: Ann Cejka

Cite as: Cejka, Ann. "Tokheim, John J." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 25 June 2018