Who was Peter Cooper?

By Afshin Khan (CE ‘19)

Peter Cooper was born on February 12, 1791, fifteen years after the founding of the United States of America. Despite having one year of formal schooling, Cooper was able to make forays into several industries, including real estate, locomotion, and insurance. At the age of 68, Peter Cooper established The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art as the first of its kind, offering a free education that was open to people from all walks of life. But these are all factoids that a quick Google search can turn up. Who was the real Peter Cooper?

The son of an army officer in the American Revolution, Cooper was born in New York City, not far from where Cooper Union’s campus is located today. Even at an early age, Cooper had a penchant for invention. The very first invention ever attributed to Cooper was a washing machine powered by a crank.

Perhaps his first lesson in business came at the young age of 13. As a 13-year-old boy, Cooper spent and lost ten dollars (about $200 today) on a lottery ticket. This experience, especially for a boy with such humble beginnings, led Cooper to develop a risk-averse mentality. When faced with the choice later in life, Cooper would choose not to assume loans when building his businesses.

As a 38-year-old man, Cooper purchased parcels of land located in Baltimore, Maryland. Hoping to turn a profit by selling this land, Cooper was disabused of this idea as there was a lack of transport in the area. Fortuitously, the overseer for the land informed Cooper of the abundance of iron ore on the property. As a result, Peter Cooper built an iron business on the property. It was on this property that Cooper was able to invent a new process for rolling steel, which would later be used to build rails for trolleys. However, trolleys were actually the precursor for Cooper’s very own invention, the “Tom Thumb”, the world’s first steam-powered locomotive. The power, efficiency, and small size of Cooper’s device enabled navigation through the most difficult terrain. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, having seen his invention at a meeting for shareholders, quickly adopted his invention. Cooper soon grew his iron business into Trenton Iron Works, located in New Jersey.

At the age of 50, Cooper turned his sights to politics, becoming a member of New York’s municipal council in 1840. This was the stepping stone to his running for presidency in the election of 1876, at the age of 85, a fact unbeknownst to many. Between being elected alderman in New York’s municipal council, and running for president, Peter Cooper was planning to create an educational institution that would empower the poor, people of color, and women, by providing them with a free education. Thomas Edison was just one of the many people who enrolled in a chemistry course offered at the Cooper Union.

Cooper was a man who held many patents throughout his lifetime, including the patent for powdered gelatin, which would later be used to make Jell-O. He was also a man of many trades, from manufacturing glue to iron-production. However, he was not just business-oriented, as he held several patents and had a voice in politics, opposing slavery, and promoting equality. In many ways, Cooper was a man of an interdisciplinary background—much like the institution is today.

Peter Cooper died in New York City on April 4, 1883 at the age of 92 However, his legacy lives on. The institution he created still exists today of course, and may even be considered his greatest invention.

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