Petroleum Collectibles Monthly

The Gas Pump Showcase by Scott Anderson - The History of John J. Tokheim and the Tokheim Manufacturing Company - November 2002 issue

Scott Anderson

In this month's article on vintage gasoline pumps, I will take an in depth look at the history of John J. Tokheim, and The Tokheim Manufacturing Co. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In an effort to maintain the privacy of the Tokheim family, I will not mention the specific names of the family members who provided me with the historical background information used in this article.
In the summer of 1991, I received a telephone call from a nice lady in Cedar Rapids, Iowa who identified herself as the niece of John J. Tokheim's daughter. She explained to me that she and her cousin were putting together an historical display in Cedar Rapids, Iowa dedicated to the memory of their ancestor, John J. Tokheim, known as "J.J." by his family and friends.
I was aware that The Tokheim Pump Co. had originated in Cedar Rapids, IA, and at the time I was very interested in the history of all known Iowa gasoline pump manufacturers. Little did I know that I would soon be given an opportunity of a lifetime. After reading my book, Check The Oil, the nieces decided that I should become involved in their "family" project and they invited me to Cedar Rapids for a personal visit. Upon arriving, I was truly astounded at what was waiting for me.
After meeting with the nieces, I was asked if I would like to meet the daughter of J. J. Tokheim in person. A little surprised by their question, I, of course, answered yes and the next thing I knew I was interviewing J.J. Tokheim's daughter, Agnes, in her nursing home. She was in her nineties at the time and she was very sharp and articulate. We talked for one half hour and enjoyed some great conversation about her father, the history of The Tokheim Company and the gasoline pump industry in general. Towards the end of our conversation she asked me if I could find an original Tokheim gasoline pump that was manufactured by her father, purchase it and restore it for her family's museum that was being built at a local historical park.
It took me three months to locate a rare Tokheim Model #211, 10-gallon visible gas pump for them and another three months to complete the restoration. After delivering the pump to Cedar Rapids, I was invited back to the nieces' place of business for a little surprise that the family had waiting for me. They were so happy with the restored Tokheim pump that they decided to let me look through J. J. Tokheim's personal effects and his historical records. I was led into a back room of the office, and in the middle of the floor was an immigrant's travel trunk that was at least 100 years old. Upon opening the trunk, I discovered a wealth of paper literature representing J. J. Tokheim's entire life.
I found early factory manuals, from water pump and electric motor companies dating to the 1890s. I found copies of every advertising brochure ever made by J.J. Tokheim between 1901 and 1935. I found letters to the U.S. Patent Office and to family members describing his desire to invent and produce a safe and efficient gasoline pump. I found his personal hand written notes on sizes, colors, metal sources, even old Gillette razor blades dated 1906. I spent hours going through this "treasure chest" that no one, other than the family, had ever seen.
After closing the trunk, and coming back down to earth, I thanked the nieces for the opportunity and started to say goodbye. Before I could extend my hand to them, they told me that their aunt would like me to have some of the literature in the trunk. Very appreciative, I gladly agreed to use this literature in articles or books that I would write in the future. Most of the factory illustrations shown in the previous and current issue of PCM are one of a kind, nearly 100 years old, and never before seen by the public. In addition to the original factory literature, the family also gave me a copy of J. J. Tokheim's personal history, including a biography written by his family and employees in October of 1934 and an autobiography written by J. J. Tokheim himself in November of 1939.
On a subsequent trip to Cedar Rapids the following year, I was invited to tour the original Tokheim manufacturing plant, complete with original tools, patterns, and N.O.S. parts. I can honestly say that this association with the original Tokheim family was one of my best experiences in the gas pump collecting hobby and business. The following is the combined, paraphrased, personal history of J .J. Tokheim as described above.
J.J. Tokheim's Personal History:
John J. Tokheim was born in the small village of Odda, (Hardanger Bay) Norway, in 1871. He came to the United States as a young man of sixteen in 1887, paying for his passage by working for ten months on an Iowa farm located near Thor, Iowa.
The following two summers he continued farm work, and during the winter months he attended school and earned his room and board by doing chores on the farm. From 1890 to 1894 he served an apprenticeship as a sheet metal worker, earning $50.00 per year and studied sheet metal drafting at night. He earned room and board by doing extra work such as cleaning the tin shop and hardware store after closing. From 1894 to 1896 he studied the "tinners trade" and worked in the local hardware store. He also attended a commercial business college in Des Moines, IA and worked as a sheet metal fabricator in a Chicago factory during this time period.
Late in 1896 he returned to Thor, IA to start his own sheet metal works, machine shop, water pump service, and a retail hardware store. Over the next year he gradually added a complete stock of hardware, well pumps, and began to handle kerosene and gasoline for lamps and stoves.
In the spring of 1898, Mr. Tokheim conceived the idea that it would be safer to store the gasoline underground outside the store building and he built a tank for that purpose. He then piped the gasoline into the store where he attached a crude pump adapted from a water pump. This led to the invention of what proved to be the world's first known "Visible Measuring Pump", and he obtained a U.S. Letters patent on this new pump in January of 1901. This method of storing gasoline underground for safety, and dispensing it through an indoor hand-operated pump soon became universally accepted throughout America. (It should be noted here that S. F. Bowser had already developed this concept for safe storage and delivery of gasoline a few years earlier. What made Tokheim's pump stand out from the competition was its ability to accurately measure the quantity of gasoline delivered and determine the cost of the gasoline to the customer
through a calibrated visible glass cylinder.)
In late 1901, Tokheim organized as a stock company in Cedar Rapids, IA under the name of The Tokheim Manufacturing Company, for the purpose of perfecting, promoting, and marketing his invention, "The Visible Measuring Pump". In 1902 he sold the hardware business and devoted his time to the management of the manufacturing business. During the next ten years he built the company into a nationally known business. While operating this company he invented many useful articles including a naphtha handling system for dry cleaners, the first known power pump for factory use wherever gasoline or naphtha was handled, the first known liquid level gauge used extensively on automobiles to indicate gasoline and oil levels, and a vacuum operated vinegar, acid and oil dispensing system.
In 1910 two wealthy investors from Ft. Wayne, IN recognized the value of the thriving business and bought up all of the outstanding stock except the shares held by Mr. Tokheim. They reorganized the business, placing in charge some of their own relatives, and in 1911 pushed Mr. Tokheim out. The Tokheim Manufacturing Company and Mr. Tokheim divided the business in April of 1911; Mr. Tokheim taking the vacuum dispensing system, the liquid level gauge, and future "promises" from the new owners. Mr. Tokheim agreed that the company could continue using the firm name during the remainder of their incorporation charter, and that during that time he would not use the name in the same way.
Mr. Tokheim continued his portion of the business under the name of The Vac Liquid Equipment Company from 1911 to 1915. Now in business for himself, he began to manufacture and market the Vac system for handling bulk vinegar and cider, selling it direct to the retail grocery trade. In December of 1915, The Tokheim Manufacturing Company canceled their corporate charter with the state of Iowa and Mr. Tokheim changed his business name to The Tokheim Company.
Between 1911 and 1916, Mr. Tokheim invented the first known gasoline curb service for automobiles in combination with a street light post (the Triune Electric Gasoline Pump with metered discharge registers, 1911-1913); the first known electric operated gasoline pump using a flow meter and a wet hose discharge nozzle built in the form of a curb gasoline sign post (the Triune Electric Filtered Gasoline Pump, 1913-1916); the triune three cylinder piston pump used in dry cleaning plants and farm implement factories for handling naphtha, varnishes, paints and oils; and a new process for reclaiming gasoline or naphtha in dry cleaning plants called the Vac gasoline renovator. Mr. Tokheim continued to invent new equipment to fill the needs of the market such as public and private garage gasoline pumps, agitator tanks, and other new equipment to promote safety in the handling of petroleum products.
During World War I, and up until April 1919, Mr. Tokheim was engaged in government work, designing and making jigs, tools and dies for the war effort on a sub-contract basis. This effort continued until 1920 when Mr. Tokheim again assumed his old business in the petroleum equipment handling field.
From 1920 to 1924, Mr. Tokheim invented and manufactured several different visible gasoline pumps, and in 1924 he was granted a U.S. patent on various improvements to the visible pump. At this time other pump manufacturers were lowering prices to get volume business and thus cutting profit margins. Mr. Tokheim then decided to direct his efforts towards more profitable products.
Between 1925 and 1940, Mr. Tokheim concentrated on new inventions such as a vacuum system to remove unwanted water from automobile gasoline tanks called the Vac extractor. During this time period, he also invented a bulk gasoline tank breather valve, a vapor condenser, a vapor-tight measuring gauge, a vapor control with flame arrester, a tank temperature test unit as well as the Vac vinegar and cider measuring equipment.
Over the years, the employees of The Tokheim Company have had full time employment and a great deal of overtime. There has been perfect harmony and satisfaction to all. Many employees represented second and third generations of Tokheim's. All products manufactured by Mr. Tokheim are his own inventions. All of the goods of The Tokheim Company are recognized for their quality and durability.
J.J. Tokheim has devoted most of his life to inventing, designing and manufacturing visible measuring pumps, and liquid handling equipment, and safety devices for the oil industry. While The Tokheim Company is a family proposition controlled entirely by Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Tokheim and daughter, the gentleman is the guiding genius, and all patents, inventions, the result of his engineering mind. Mr. J.J. Tokheim has no connection with The Tokheim Oil Tank and Pump Company of Ft. Wayne, IN.
As a follow up to the proceeding Tokheim historical information, I feel it is important to explain the details concerning the change in ownership at the original Tokheim Manufacturing Co. and its subsequent move from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
In 1910, Mr. Ralph F. Diserens, a Ft. Wayne banker, and Mr. M.B. Muxen, an executive of the Wayne Pump and Tank Co., bought the outstanding stock of the original Tokheim Mfg. Co. Now having a controlling interest in the company, they traveled to Cedar Rapids, IA to reorganize the business. J.J. Tokheim's two new "partners" proceeded to finance an expansion of the company and at the same time force J.J. Tokheim out of his former management position. J.J. Tokheim officially withdrew from the company in 1911. While J.J. Tokheim was the creative genius behind the former company, he was forced to relinquish control of the company to Mr. Diserens and Mr. Muxen. J.J. Tokheim immediately started a new company in 1911 known as The Vac Liquid Equipment Company. Mr. Diserens and Mr. Muxen continued to operate The Tokheim Mfg. Co. from 1911 to 1918 when they sold the company to a group of Ft. Wayne investors (retaining some ownership for themselves) and moved the company to Ft. Wayne, IN. The Tokheim Mfg. Co. was renamed The Tokheim Pump Co. and incorporated in June of 1918.
J.J. Tokheim continued to operate Vac Liquid Co. from 1911 to 1915. In 1915, J.J. Tokheim changed the name of his company to The Tokheim Co. J.J. Tokheim produced several different visible gasoline pumps from 1915-1925 (see illustrations in this article) as well as numerous other inventions for use in the petroleum handling industry between 1915 and 1940. J.J. Tokheim continued to operate The Tokheim Co. until his death on March 15, 1941. His daughter and only child, Agnes, who never married, took over the operation of the company and managed it until it was sold in 1991 to Tom Barnes of The Barnes Manufacturing Service, Marion, IA, for approximately $60,000.00.
The Tokheim Pump Co. of Ft. Wayne, IN eventually became The Tokheim Oil Tank and Pump Co. and is known today simply as The Tokheim Corporation. It is interesting to note that J.J. Tokheim, his family and his employees were very bitter about the "hostile" take over of the original Tokheim Mfg. Co., and that his descendants remain resentful to this day for the success achieved by the Ft. Wayne operation.
We will take a closer look at The Tokheim Pump Co. of Ft. Wayne, IN and its operations from 1918 to the present day in a future PCM article. I hope you enjoyed this article on John J. Tokheim, a true genius and pioneer in the American Petroleum Industry. In next month's issue of PCM, we examine the curbside gasoline pump and the time period (1910-1920).

Answer to last month's trivia question:
City: Ft. Wayne, Indiana; Order: Bowser 1885, Wayne 1891, Tokheim 1918.
Thanks for all of your responses. We had several correct answers submitted, and the winner in the drawing was Jim Knippel. Congratulations Jim - your $25.00 gift certificate is on the way!

Gas Pump Trivia Question Number Two:
Name three gasoline pump manufacturers from the state of Ohio and the cities where they were headquartered.

Contact Information:
Scott Anderson
Scotty's Garage and Time Passages, Ltd.
P.O. Box 65596
West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
Phone (515) 223-5105 Fax (515) 223-5149
Web Site

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