Peter Cooper was a remarkable man, an industrialist, civic leader, and philanthropist, a first-rate inventor who was also—uncharacteristically of inventors—a first-rate businessman. Just as remarkably, Cooper knew what he wanted to make of his life. In his old age, he said that he spent the first 30 years of his life getting a start, the next 30 making a fortune, and the last 30 doing good with that fortune.
Cooper was born in 1791, the fifth child of nine siblings. His father worked at various occupations, as a hatter, storekeeper, brick maker, and brewer. He was not particularly good at any of them, however, and the family eventually left New York City for Peekskill, New York. As a result, young Peter became widely acquainted with business practices as he tried to help the breadwinner establish himself in the world. He often found creative ways to make himself useful. While still a child, he constructed a device for pounding laundry, perhaps the world’s first washing machine. He also designed a machine for mowing lawns, in an age when lawnmowers were called “sheep.”
Because his family was always short of money, Cooper received only one year of formal education, a lack he felt keenly. But he studied on his own and, when he could afford it, hired tutors to teach him subjects. Apprenticed to a carriage maker, Cooper proved so valuable an employee that the carriage maker voluntarily doubled—and then tripled—his salary. Shortly after completing his apprenticeship, Cooper married Sarah Bedell. It would be a long and happy marriage, with six children, although only two lived to maturity.
When he was 30 years old, Cooper acquired a glue factory, just north of the settled part of Manhattan (at what is now 32nd Street and Park Avenue). He paid $2,000 in cash, a considerable sum at that time. It proved immensely profitable, yielding him $10,000 in profit the first year. Adept at chemistry, Cooper greatly improved the product line; among the new products he developed was instant gelatin. (His wife developed recipes for mixing it with fruit, so, in a sense, it can be said that they invented Jell-O.) Soon he was earning $100,000 annually, a vast income for the 1820s.
Cooper lived simply and poured his profits into his business and investments. With two partners, he bought extensive waterfront property in Baltimore, hoping to profit from the increased commerce between the harbor and then-under-construction Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. When the steam locomotives arrived from Britain, however, it was discovered that they could not climb the steep grade and make the narrow turns west of the city. Cooper was undeterred. He built from scratch a steam engine—later nicknamed the “Tom Thumb”—that was capable of handling American conditions. It was the first steam engine built in the United States.
By the 1850s, he was among the richest men in the country. He remained open as ever to new ideas and new technology, including the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable project of his neighbor Cyrus Field. Cooper invested in the cable—which was successful only after 11 years, and four failures.
Contemporaries of Cooper sometimes observed that he was not much fun. He had no sense of humor whatsoever. His idea of leisure was to spend an afternoon discussing the finer points of Protestant theology with clergymen, and he never joined any of the men’s clubs that were springing up in mid-19th century New York. The great joy of his life, it appears, was philanthropy.
As Cooper approached middle age, charitable work became increasingly important to him. He sat on numerous boards of eleemosynary institutions and was a generous contributor to his church and to worthy causes throughout the city and state. In 1853, he laid the cornerstone of his signature project, the Cooper Union.
Cooper intended for his school to provide a practical education, free of charge, to working people who wanted to improve themselves. Modeled after the École Polytechnique in Paris, the Cooper Union offered many of its classes at night so that those who had to earn a living could fully avail themselves of the school.
When the Cooper Union first opened its doors in 1859, more than 2,000 people applied to take classes. The Union’s reading room as well was open to the public and, unlike New York City’s other libraries at that time, was open until 10:00 p.m., again so that working people could use it. As many as 3,000 people took advantage of the reading room every week.
Cooper required that there be no discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sex—almost unprecedented in the mid-19th century—and that the institution provide an education “equal to the best” available. Among its early alumni was Thomas Edison. The impoverished Edison could never have afforded the tuition at a regular engineering school.
The building, located at Astor Place in Manhattan’s East Village, is itself interesting, the first fireproof building in New York, constructed with iron I-beams (invented and manufactured by Cooper, of course). It also contained an elevator shaft, installed before the appearance of commercial elevators. (Cooper was confident that a safe elevator mechanism would soon be developed.) The circular shaft was later fitted with an elevator by Elisha Otis, and is still in use.
The Great Hall occupied the basement level and immediately became one of the most important venues in New York for major political addresses. Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech there early in 1860, the speech that propelled him into serious contention for the Republican nomination that year. Many presidents have spoken there since.
Cooper devoted over half his fortune to the Union’s endowment, including much Manhattan real estate, which has allowed the endowment to grow along with the city. (The Cooper Union, for instance, owns the land under the Chrysler Building, from which it derives a considerable rent.) Prominent among the school’s later benefactors was Andrew Carnegie, who praised Cooper in “The Gospel of Wealth” and donated $600,000 to the institution in 1902. Thanks to its founder’s generosity, Cooper Union—one of the premier engineering, architecture, and art schools in the country—was for more than a century that rarest of birds: a completely tuition-free college. (After a series of misadventures with the institution's endowment, the trustees announced that as of 2014 they would start charging half-price tuition.)
“I have always recognized that the object of business is to make money in an honorable manner,” wrote Cooper, not long before his death in 1883. “I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good.” He remembered it well, and tens of thousands of young men and women over the last 150 years have benefited as a result.
~ John Steele Gordon