PETER COOPER Biography - Famous Scientists


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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.                                                   
Peter Cooper's legacy supports degree-granting programs in Art, Architecture,                 
and Engineering.