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John Isaac Hawkins : a Biographical Timeline 1772 - 1854

(added 17 August 2017)



John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1854) was born in England, but spent a number of years in America, arriving there ca. 1790 when about eighteen years old, before returning to work in London in 1803. He was destined to return to America in his final years and died in New Jersey in 1854. Although a prolific inventor in several fields during the course of his working life, sadly he appears to have profited little financially from his innovations. Throughout his life he was a follower of the Swedensborgian religion, having been brought to this faith by his father, who had converted in 1785 and in consequence was expelled from the Methodist church by Wesley at that time.

In the field of musical instrument making, as a young man John Isaac Hawkins was responsible for the design of an upright pianoforte in America first constructed ca. 1800, with strings that extended vertically towards the floor, so preceding William Southwell's cabinet pianoforte, patented 1807, by several years.

Hawkins also designed another ambitious musical instrument which he called a Claviole, the first of which he constructed and completed while still in America in 1802. In summary, he described this instrument as a keyed instrument, with gut strings, made in form of a book-case, or chamber organ, which imitated wind as well as stringed instruments. He returned to London in the year 1803 and, according to his own later testimony in 1845, he contructed two further such instruments there, the first being completed in 1806.

Evidence from contemporary newspaper sources now reveals that he opened a manufactory to make and sell his upright pianos in London in 1805. However, by 1807 the business had foundered and he was made bankrupt. He went on to work in other fields, including sugar refining (see 1827 for further information relating to this activity) and manufacturing pens with gold nibs tipped with iridium for strength.

However, it appears he never abandoned hope of developing and profiting further from his Claviole. Writing in 1845, he floated plans to travel through Europe and America, exhibiting the instrument at concerts and giving lessons on its construction to musical instrument makers 'willing to pay him for the results of his long experience'. In reality these plans were no more than a pipe dream.

In 1848 he returned to America hoping to take advantage of what he believed would be a more congenial environment for his endeavours, but this too proved to be a forlorn hope. He died in Elizabethtown, New Jersey in 1854, a poor and lonely man, with only his young third wife for company.

Timeline: Page 1 of 3 (1772 - 1804)

John Isaac Hawkins was born 15 March 1772, the son of Isaac Hawkins (a Taunton watchmaker and local Methodist preacher) and his wife Joan. His elder sister Anna was born 13 December 1769. (Obituary of J I Hawkins in The Annual Report of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1865-66 and R.F. Tafel, 1877  Documents concerning the Life and Character of Emanuel Swedenborg, Vol II Part 3-in some bindings Part 2 Note 239.  London: Swedensborg Society, British and Foreign

[See 1788 for the siblings later baptism into the Swedensborgian faith in London).


Isaac Hawkins Senior settled in London with his family (Tafel, 1877)

1785 In about this year Hawkins Senior was converted to the Swedenborgian faith by his friend and fellow Methodist preacher, James Hindmarsh. In consequence he was expelled from the Society of Methodists by Wesley (Tafel, 1877)

Both John Isaac Hawkins and his sister Anna were baptised at the Friar Street Swedenborgian Church, in London on 15 June 1788 (Piece 4239, Friar Street, Blackfriars, 1787-1837)


John Isaac Hawkins is reported to have left England for America at around this time and entered the college at Jersey [later to become Princeton University] initially to study medicine, but soon changed his course to study 'more mechanical pursuits', devoting attention to ‘perfecting the mode of removing chemical and mechanical impurities from water, by filtration in contact with charcoal' (Obituary of J.I. Hawkins in The Annual Report of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1865-66)

His elder sister, Anna, married William Thompson, churchwarden of St. James's, Clerkenwell, and a master-manufacturer of coal measures and coal shovels. According to the memoir of her youngest son Samuel (b.1810), she went on to bear 11 children before her husband died in the year of Samuel's birth (S. Thompson Reminiscences of a Canadian Pioneer for the Last Fifty Years: an Autobiography, 1884, Ch.1, note 1). J.I. Hawkins was later to play an influential role in Samuel's upbringing.


Hawkins married  (or co-habited with) with Anna Burton in America from about this year. She was born in 1775, according to her age at date of death (information given in her obituary - see 1838)


Hawkins made the first bow for his new invention, the key fingered viol (Claviola or Claviole), while living in Bordenton, New Jersey (J.I. Hawkins 1845  'The History and Resusciation of the Claviole, or finger-keyed Viol' in The Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal. Ed. J C Robertson Vol XLIII [5 July-27Dec 1845], p123. [Author's note: The spelling of 'Bordenton'here is that given in Hawkin's article, though from later sources it appears the correct spelling is 'Bordentown']


On 13 November 1800 his father registered an English patent on his behalf 'for an Invention applicable to Musical Instruments, the Principles of which are also designed to be applied to other Machinery' (The Repertory Arts, Manufactures, Agriculture No. XLIII Second Series. Dec. 1805).

[Author's note: See Michael Cole, 1998, The Pianoforte in the Classical Era, pp 263-6 for more information on the specifications listed in Hawkins' patent. Interestingly he observes that Hawkins was never a musical instrument maker as such, but an engineer who with youthful enthusiam proposed to revolutionise the design of the pianoforte, though he had little practical experience in the field. In consequence, to quote Cole, ...'Hawkins attempted far too much and paid too little attention to essentials. He introduced so many innovations all at once that something was sure to give trouble, and did'...]

A letter dated 11 February 1800 from Thomas Jefferson to his wife Martha describes an upright forte piano which he would proceed to buy from Hawkins for the use of his daughter.

... a person here has invented the prettiest improvment in the Forte piano I have ever seen. it has tempted me to engage one for Monticello, partly for it’s [sic] excellence & convenience, partly to assist a very ingenious, modest & poor young man, who ought to make a fortune by his invention. his strings are perpendicular, so that the instrument is only 3. f. 4. I. wide, 16. I. deep, and 3. f. 6. I. high. it resembles when closed the under half of a book case, & may be moved,by it’s handles, to the fire side. he contrives within that height to give his strings the same length as in the grand fortepiano, and fixes his 3. unisons to the same screw, which screw is in the direction of the strings and therefore never yields. it scarcely gets out of tune at all, & then for the most part the 3. unisons are tuned at once. the price of one with 5 octaves is 200. D. with 5½ octaves 250. D.

(Citation: From Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 11 February 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 31, 1 February 179931 May 1800, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 365–366.]


On 13 April 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Hawkins regarding the Forte piano he had purchased regretting that it would not stay in tune and asking if he might return it to have the defect remedied, offering to bear the coast of transportation from Washington to Philadelphia for this purpose.

(Citation: To Thomas Jefferson from John Isaac Hawkins, 21 April 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 37, 4 March–30 June 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 301.])

Hawkins replied on 21 April and said he would be happy to deal with this, but that he required payment of $40 to cover his costs. He also intimated that he expected ol leave for London ‘in a few weeks’, saying that he had been left property there by a relative.

(Citation: To Thomas Jefferson from John Isaac Hawkins, 21 April 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 37, 4 March–30 June 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 301).

Images of an extant example of a Hawkins forte-piano (No. 6) made in America in 1801 are available on the website of the Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

On 17 June 1802 Jefferson wrote to Hawkins saying he had shipped the piano to him for repair. He mentions the Claviole which was due to be exhibited and that he could be interested in trading in his piano for a Claviole if one were available.

(Citation: "From Thomas Jefferson to John Isaac Hawkins, 17 June 1802,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 37, 4 March–30 June 1802, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 613–614.] )

According to his own account of the history of the Claviole, Hawkins gave a concert on his newly constructed instrument in Philadelphia 21 June 1802, which featured music composed by himself. it also featured a performance on his 'patent portable grand piano', which he later claimed to be 'the grandfather of the present Cabinet, Piccolo, and other pianos with short upright strings' (J.I. Hawkins 1845 The Mechanics’ Magazine, p123)

He exhibited his Claviole at Mr Peale’s Museum in that city for a short time from 23 June 1802, before preparing for his forthcoming trip to Europe (Hawkins, 1845, Mechanics Magazine).

News of the invention of this novel instrument had reached England by August of this year. A short newspaper report in a provincial newspaer reads:

A Mr Hawkins, of New York, has constructed/ a new musical isntrument, which he calls a claviol./ The music is produced from gut strings by a re-/ fined horse hair bow, and is played with finger-/ keys like the harpsichord. The tones which this/ instrument produces are stated to possess the sweet-/ ness of the Harmonica, the richness of the violin,/ and the grandeur of the organ. (Hampshire Chronicle, 16 August 1802)


On 8 June 1803 Hawkins wrote again to Jefferson asking for permission for a Mr Uri K Hill to take his likeness in profile with one of his ‘patent physicgnotraces’, for publication in America and Europe. He added that he expected to sail for England in about two weeks and intends to set up a manufactory for Clavioles, promising to send the first perfect one to his order.

(Citation: To Thomas Jefferson from John Isaac Hawkins, 8 June 1803,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 40, 4 March–10 July 1803, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 501–502.]

Evidence that Hawkins patented the design of a polygraph in America and sold the rights to Charles William Peale, artist, inventor and director of the American Museum in Philadephia before his return to England is reported in the findings of a project conducted at Cambridge University. Thomas Jefferson is reported to have used the machine for more than twenty years and carried on a lengthy correspondence about how it might be improved.

Writing in 1845, Hawkins recalled that in June 1803 he left Philadelphia to travel to London, having dismantled and packed away the Claviole to await his return. He arrived in London in August 1803 (Hawkins, 1845. Mechanics' Magazine, p124)

The church register of the Swedenborgian Church, Friar Street, London records the baptism of Anna Hawkins (his American wife) on 28 August 1803. Her date of birth is given as 6 November 1775 and her parents are named as David and Catherine Burton.

Page 2 (1804 -1812)

Page 3 (1813-1854)

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