Peter Cooper was born into a poor family, but even as a child he was inventing things—what may have been the world’s first washing machine, an innovative mower, different ways of making gelatin, a steam locomotive, a new type of iron smelting, and so forth. He studied, experimented, apprenticed himself, even hired tutors for personal instruction, always self improving. By his later years Cooper was one of the richest men in the United States. Yet he lived simply, putting most of his wealth into helping others. He particularly hoped to see people develop talents that were latent within them. Having had only one year of formal schooling himself, he nursed a lifelong desire to help “the mass of struggling humanity” grab onto education. As a vehicle for supporting self-improvement of this sort he founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859, when he was 68.
The structure he erected to house the college was the first large building to be made of iron, an advance that greatly reduced the risk of fire and that was made possible by Cooper’s own invention of superior I-beams. Cooper opened the institution to women, blacks, and the working classes. Its success was so immediate that a near-riot occurred at the launch, as New Yorkers swarmed to register. Cooper’s son-in-law and business partner found it “incredible that there should be such a passion for learning among the toilers.”
It was central to Cooper’s vision that students should be able to attend at no cost, and thanks to his $600,000 founding gift and subsequent endowments, the college eventually offered full-tuition scholarships for all students. From his own personal experience Cooper knew that many students hoping to rise in society would face job and family demands that competed with their ability to study—so the school offered night classes, and kept its library open to all comers until 10 p.m. every evening.
In addition to providing technical skills that would boost prosperity (the engineering school remains one of the premier organizations in its field), Cooper wanted to foster artistic expression that could spark broader creativity. One early student was the sculptor Auguste Saint-Gaudens. Today, the schools of art and architecture at Cooper Union are among the most selective in the country, with alumni who have accumulated 18 Guggenheim fellowships, nine Chrysler Design Awards, and three Thomas Jefferson Awards for Public Architecture.
- Cooper Union founding documents, library.cooper.edu/archive/cooper_archives_page.html
- Profile of Peter Cooper in Philanthropy Hall of Fame, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/hall_of_fame/peter_cooper