Peter Cooper

in the 11th (1911) edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica


COOPER, PETER (1791-1883), American manufacturer, inventor and philanthropist, was born in New York city on the 12th of February 1791. His grandfathers and his father served in the War of American Independence. He received practically no schooling, but worked with his father at hat-making in New York city, at brewing in Peekskill, at brick-making in Catskill, and again at brewing in Newburgh. At seventeen he was apprenticed to a coach-builder in New York city. On coming of age he got employment at Hempstead, Long Island, making machines for shearing cloth; three years afterwards he set up in this business for himself, having bought the sole right to manufacture such machinery in the state of New York. Business prospered during the War of 1812, but fell off after the peace. He turned his shop into a furniture factory; soon sold this and for a short time was engaged in the grocery business on the site of the present Bible House, opposite Cooper Union, and then invested in a glue and isinglass factory, situated for twenty-one years in Manhattan (where the Park Avenue Hotel was built later) and then in Brooklyn. About 1828 he built the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, Maryland, the foundation of his great fortune. The Baltimore & Ohio railway was to cross his property and, after various inventions aiming to do away with the locomotive crank and thus save two-fifths of the steam, in 1830 he designed and constructed (largely after plans made two years before) the first steam locomotive built in America; though only a small model it proved the practicability of using steam power for working that line. The "Tom Thumb" as Cooper called the locomotive, was about the size of a modern hand-car; as the natural draft was far from sufficient, Cooper devised a blowing apparatus. Selling his Baltimore works, he built, in 1836, in partnership with his brother Thomas, a rolling mill in New York; in 1845 he removed it to Trenton, New Jersey, where iron structural beams were first made in 1854 and the Bessemer process first tried in America in 1856; and at Philippsburg, New Jersey, he built the largest blast furnace in the country at that time. He built other foundries at Ringwood, New Jersey, and at Durham, Pennsylvania, bought iron mines in northern New Jersey, and carried the ore thence by railways to his mills. Actively interested with Cyrus Field in the laying of the first Atlantic cable, he was president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Company, and his frequent cash advances made the success of the company possible; he was president of the North American Telegraph Company also, which controlled more than one-half of the telegraph lines of the United States. For his work in advancing the iron trade he received the Bessemer gold medal from the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain in 1879. He took a prominent part in educational affairs, strongly opposed the Roman Catholic claims for public funds for parochial schools, and conducted the campaign of the Free School Society to its successful issue in 1842, when a state law was passed forbidding the support from public funds of any "religious sectarian doctrine." He is probably best known, however, as the founder of the Cooper Union (q.v.). Cooper was an early advocate of the emancipation and the enlistment in the Union army of Southern negroes, and he upheld the administration of Lincoln. Though he had been a hard-money Democrat, he joined the Greenback party after the Civil War, and in 1876 was its candidate for the presidency, but received only 81,740 out of the 8,412,833 votes cast. He died in New York city on the 4th of April 1883. He published The Political and Financial Opinions of Peter Cooper, with an Autobiography of his Early Life (1877), and Ideas for a Science of Good Government, in Addresses, Letters and Articles on a Strictly National Currency, Tariff and Civil Service (1883).

There is a brief biography by R. W. Raymond, Peter Cooper (Boston. 1900).