Peter Cooper was born February 12, 1791 in New York City.
Peter grew up fascinated by how things worked and not sure what he wanted to do with his life. He tried working as a coachmaker’s apprentice, a cabinet maker, a hatmaker, a brewer and a grocer.
Peter developed a cloth-shearing machine which he attempted to sell, as well as an endless chain he intended to be used to pull boats on the Erie Canal, which De Witt Clinton approved of, but which Cooper was unable to sell.
In 1813, Peter married Sarah Bedell (1793–1869). Together, they would had a son, Edward and a daughter Sarah Amelia.
In 1821, Peter had saved up enough money to purchase a glue factory on Sunfish Pond for $2,000 in New York City’s Kips Bay, where he had access to raw materials from the nearby slaughterhouses. He ran it as a successful business for many years, producing a profit of $10,000 within the first two years, along with developing new ways to produce glues and cements, gelatin, isinglass and other products.
Peter also became New York City’s premiere provider to tanners, manufacturers of paints, and dry-goods merchants.
So successful in fact, that by 1839 the pollution from Peter’s factory eventually polluted Sunfish Pond to the extent that the pond had to be drained and refilled.
By 1828, Peter became convinced that the proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would drive up prices for land in Maryland.
Peter used the profits from his factory to buy 3,000 acres of land and began draining swampland, and flattening hills.
One day while his crew was working on his land, Peter discovered iron ore.
Peter realized that the B&O Railroad would be interested in purchasing his iron ore for iron rails, so he founded Canton Iron Works in Baltimore.
Later, when B&O Railroad developed technical problems, Peter decided to design and build a steam locomotive in order to convince them to use steam engines.
In 1830, Peter built his four-wheel steam locomotive out of various old parts, including musket barrels for boiler tubes, and some small-scale steam engines he had fiddled with back in New York. It had a vertical boiler and vertically mounted cylinders that drove the wheels on one of the axles.
Peter named the steam engine, “Tom Thumb.” Testing was performed on B&O railway tracks between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills.
On August 28, 1830, the driver of a passing horse-drawn passenger car challenged Peter and his steam locomotive to a race.
Tom Thumb easily pulled away from the horse drawn carriage until the belt slipped off the blower pulley. Without the blower, the boiler did not draw and the locomotive lost power allowing the horse carriage to pass and win the race.
Nonetheless, Tom Thumb was a rousing success. Investors bought huge amounts of B7O stock, realizing that the locomotive offered superior performance and would become the wave of the future.
Peter went on to sell iron rails, making him his first fortune. As for the Tom Thumb, it was never intended to be used for revenue and was not preserved.
Tom Thumb Replica
In 1892, a wooden model of Tom Thumb was constructed by Major Pangborn (who also had models made of many other early locomotives), and when a replica was constructed in 1926 for the “Fair of the Iron Horse”, the builders followed Pangborn’s model.
The replica therefore differed considerably from the original, being somewhat larger and heavier, and considerably taller.
That Tom Thumb replica remains at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum.
Peter Cooper soon became one of the richest men in New York City. He opened an iron rolling mill in New York beginning in 1836, where he was the first to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron. Peter would later move the mill to Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River to be closer to the sources of the raw materials the works needed.
In 1840, Peter became an alderman of New York City.
Peter also went on to be awarded a number of patents for his inventions, including some for the manufacture of gelatin, and he developed standards for its production. The patents were later sold to a cough syrup manufacturer who developed a pre-packaged form which his wife named “Jell-O”.
Despite his personal wealth, Peter lived relatively simple in an age when the rich were indulging in more and more luxury. Peter dressed in simple, plain clothes, and limited his household to only two servants; when his wife bought an expensive and elaborate carriage, he returned it for a more sedate and cheaper one.
Cooper remained in his home at Fourth Avenue and 28th Street even after the New York and Harlem Railroad established freight yards where cattle cars were parked practically outside his front door, although he did move to the more genteel Gramercy Park development in 1850.
In 1853, Peter broke ground for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a private college in New York, completing the building in 1859 at the cost of $600,000. Cooper Union offered open-admission night classes available to men and women alike, and attracted 2,000 responses to its initial offering, although 600 later dropped out. The classes were non-sectarian, and women were treated equally with men, although 95% of the students were male. Peter also started a Women’s School of Design, which offered daytime courses in engraving, lithography, painting on china and drawing.
In 1854, Peter was one of five men who met at the house of Cyrus West Field in Gramercy Park to form the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, and, in 1855, the American Telegraph Company, which bought up competitors and established extensive control over the expanding American network on the Atlantic Coast and in some Gulf coast states.
Peter was also among those supervising the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858.
Prior to the Civil War, Peter became active in the anti-slavery movement and promoted the application of Christian concepts to solve social injustice. He was a strong supporter of the Union cause during the war and an advocate of the government issue of paper money.
Influenced by the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Peter also became involved in the Indian reform movement, organizing the privately funded United States Indian Commission. This organization, whose members included William E. Dodge and Henry Ward Beecher, was dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans in the United States and the elimination of warfare in the western territories.
Peter’s efforts led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners, which oversaw Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy.
Between 1870 and 1875, Peter sponsored Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., New York City, and other Eastern cities. These delegations met with Indian rights advocates and addressed the public on United States Indian policy. Speakers included: Red Cloud, Little Raven, and Alfred B. Meacham and a delegation of Modoc and Klamath Indians.
Peter Cooper was encouraged to run in the 1876 presidential election for the Greenback Party without any hope of being elected. His running mate was Samuel Fenton Cary. The campaign cost more than $25,000. At the age of 85 years, Peter Cooper is still the oldest person ever nominated by any political party for President of the United States.
The election was won by Rutherford Birchard Hayes of the Republican Party.
Peter Cooper died on April 4, 1883 at the age of 92. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
Today Cooper Union is recognized as one of the leading American colleges in the fields of architecture, engineering, and art. Carrying on Peter Cooper’s belief that college education should be free, the Cooper Union awards all its students with a full scholarship.
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