Peter Cooper - A Short Biography of A Big Man

The quotes in the text below (in italics) are from Brittanica Online and are used here strictly for scholarly purposes. No commercial use is allowed.

I'm actually working on a full-fledged article about Peter Cooper's life, invention, philanthropy, and public service. Stay tuned to this space...

Peter Cooper was born on Feb. 12, 1791, in New York City.

"Son of a Revolutionary War army officer who went into a succession of businesses in New York, Cooper learned an array of trades at an early age, despite having had only a single year of formal schooling."

Cooper's family business was hatmaking; he was put to work at a very young age to pick the fur from rabbit skins. The family was of Dutch descent.

"At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to a coach maker, whom he served so well that he was given a salary, and at the end of his apprenticeship was offered a loan to go into coach making on his own. Young Cooper instead went into the business of manufacturing and selling machines for shearing cloth. A few years later he saw opportunity in another industry and switched to supplying the rapidly growing markets for glue and isinglass, building up a large business that in 1828 he entrusted to his son Edward and his son-in-law Abram S. Hewitt, while he himself plunged into still another enterprise. This was the Canton Iron Works, built on 3,000 acres of land in Baltimore, primarily to supply the new Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. The route of the railroad, however, was so hilly and twisting that English engineers despaired of running an engine over it. Cooper at once undertook to build a suitable locomotive and by 1830 had the diminutive but powerful 'Tom Thumb' experimentally pulling a load of 40 persons at 10 miles an hour.

The resulting success of the B&O contributed to Cooper's rapid expansion of business interests and growing fortune. In 1854, in his new factory at Trenton, N.J., the first structural-iron beams for buildings were rolled."

Among other uses, these beams were used to construct the Cooper Union's Foundation Building, which houses the famous Great Hall where Lincoln made his famous "Right Makes Might" speech. As one of the first buildings constructed entirely with structural iron beams to form its framework, the Cooper Union Foundation Building is recognized as a national historical landmark and is considered to be the first prototype of the modern skyscraper.

The purchase of the new factory, from the sons of Martin J. Ryerson, also included Ringwood Manor, which is located in Ringwood, NJ. It was eventually given to his daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Abram Hewitt, who used it as a summer home. Abram Hewitt and Peter Cooper's son, Edward Cooper, ran the iron factory after Peter Cooper turned it over to them. Ringwood Manor is now part of Ringwood State Park; the land was donated to Cooper Union and the school in turn sold the land and the manor to the state of New Jersey.

"He persevered in his support of Cyrus Field's Atlantic cable project until it was successfully concluded, and he became president of the North American Telegraph Company. During the same period he displayed remarkable inventive talent, producing a washing machine, a compressed-air engine for ferry boats, a waterpower device for moving canal barges, and several other devices.

Cooper's social views were farsighted; as a member of the Board of Aldermen of New York City, he advocated paid police and firemen, public schools, and improved public sanitation."

Cooper and his family lived quietly on Gramercy Park, close to All Souls, a Unitarian church (now Unitarian Universalist, and up on the Upper East Side) to which they belonged.

"In 1859 he founded Cooper Union, where free courses were offered in science, engineering, and art."

Today the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers tuition-free bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, and bachelor's degrees in architecture and art. The school also offers free summer internship research programs and weekend art programs for high school students, and runs the nation's oldest continuing education program. In Cooper's time, most New Yorkers knew the place as The Cooper Institute, and it was perhaps the most important meeting hall in New York City for the free exchange of ideas. The Cooper Union Library was the first free public reading room in New York City.

Interestingly, Peter Cooper did not name the institution after himself; rather, the name was pressed upon him by the New York State Legislature, which insisted that the institution he founded bear his name. He apparently conceived it as "a Union dedicated to Science and Art," using the broadest interpretation of the terms "science," "art," and "union." It is probably important to distinguish this from a unification of science and art. "Art" may have referred simply to "that which is done to make things of usefulness and/or beauty," and "science" may have referred to "that which is based on rational processes." I believe that it is important to try to place oneself in the mindset of the mid-1800s in order to consider these ideas in their proper context.

It is also notable that Cooper did not simply endow the institution, but actually conceived, planned and executed it, right down to supervising the details of its construction. He was the sole source of its endowment during his lifetime. Fortunately, after he passed on others began to contribute to the institution to keep his dream alive. Some of the greatest sacrifices were made by Cooper's family and the Hewitts, who devoted their lives and fortunes to helping Cooper Union stand on its own, and many other incredibly important contributions were also made just after Cooper's passing.

"In the presidential election of 1876 he headed the minority Greenback Party ticket in order to place before the public his economic views, which ran counter to the prevailing deflationary doctrine."

Note that Cooper was 84 years old when he announced his candidacy for the Presidency. Also note that he did not use his own fortune to finance the campaign. He was asked to serve as the party's candidate, and he viewed it as his duty to do so.

"At a reception in his honour in his later years he summed up his philosophy: 'I have endeavoured to remember that the object of life is to do good.'"

This quote is remarkable when compared to others of similar means who were Cooper's contemporaries. An article by Peter Lyon in American Heritage ("Peter Cooper, the Honest Man," February 1959, v.10, #2) notes in particular Cornelius Vanderbilt ("Law? What do I care about the law? Hain't I got the power?"), William Tweed, who plundered hundreds of millions of dollars from New York City, and Uncle Dan Drew ("It's the still hog that eats the most"). Cooper gave his money away without receiving any tax breaks. As alluded to above, his family fully supported him in this, giving up their own inheritances to match a grant by Andrew Carnegie just after Cooper's death. His example directly nudged Carnegie, George Peabody, Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell and many others into commencing their more famous philanthropies. Cooper was the first wealthy industrialist of the 19th century to equate the acquisition of wealth with social responsibility. It is a tragedy that history, especially the history we teach our schoolchildren, seems to have largely forgotten this pivotal figure in the history of New York City, the United States, and perhaps the world.

Peter Cooper died on April 4, 1883 in New York City at the age of 92. Thousands of New Yorkers spontaneously poured into the streets as his casket was taken to its resting place in Green-Wood Cemetary in Brooklyn, in tribute to the great man who had dedicated his life and fortune to the city he loved so well.

The above quotes (in italics) are from Brittanica Online and are used here strictly for scholarly purposes. No commercial use is allowed of these quotes.

All un-italicized text is copyright 1999-2002 by R.Q. Topper. All rights are reserved. Thanks to Alfred Kohler for his suggestion to include the location of Peter Cooper's gravesite. Mr. Kohler writes that "the cemetery is easily accessible from Cooper Union by walking to Broadway and taking the BMT R train to the 25th Street local station at Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. The main entrance to Green-Wood is one block away at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street."

This page was constructed by Prof. Robert Q. Topper, Department of Chemistry, The Cooper Union.

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, established by Peter Cooper in 1859, is a private nonprofit institution of higher learning where all students receive full-tuition scholarships.

The Cooper Union is located at Cooper Square, New York, New York 10003-7183.

Click here to learn more about the remarkable history of Peter Cooper and the Cooper Union, which he founded as a gift to the citizens of New York City.