Peter Cooper

Last updated
Peter Cooper
Peter Cooper 1900.jpg
Personal details
Born(1791-02-12)February 12, 1791
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedApril 4, 1883(1883-04-04) (aged 92)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Greenback
Spouse(s)Sarah Raynor Bedell
Children2, including Edward
Signature Peter Cooper signature.svg

Peter Cooper (February 12, 1791 April 4, 1883) was an American industrialist, inventor, philanthropist, and politician. He designed and built the first American steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and served as the Greenback Party's candidate in the 1876 presidential election.

An inventor is a person who creates or discovers a new method, form, device or other useful means that becomes known as an invention. The word inventor comes from the Latin verb invenire, invent-, to find. The system of patents was established to encourage inventors by granting limited-term, limited monopoly on inventions determined to be sufficiently novel, non-obvious, and useful. Although inventing is closely associated with science and engineering, inventors are not necessarily engineers nor scientists.

Steam locomotive Railway locomotive that produces its pulling power through a steam engine

A steam locomotive is a type of railway locomotive that produces its pulling power through a steam engine. These locomotives are fueled by burning combustible material – usually coal, wood, or oil – to produce steam in a boiler. The steam moves reciprocating pistons which are mechanically connected to the locomotive's main wheels (drivers). Both fuel and water supplies are carried with the locomotive, either on the locomotive itself or in wagons (tenders) pulled behind.

<i>Tom Thumb</i> (locomotive) American-built steam locomotive

Tom Thumb was the first American-built steam locomotive to operate on a common-carrier railroad. It was designed and constructed by Peter Cooper in 1830 to convince owners of the newly formed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O)(now CSX) to use steam engines; it was not intended to enter revenue service. It is especially remembered as a participant in an impromptu race with a horse-drawn car, which the horse won after Tom Thumb suffered a mechanical failure. However, the demonstration was successful, and the railroad committed to the use of steam locomotion and held trials in the following year for a working engine.


Cooper began tinkering at a young age while working in various positions in New York City. He purchased a glue factory in 1821 and used that factory's profits to found the Canton Iron Works, where he earned even larger profits by assembling the Tom Thumb. Cooper's success as a businessman and inventor continued over the ensuing decades, and he became the first mill operator to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron. He also developed numerous patents for products such as gelatin and participated in the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

Puddling (metallurgy) metallurgical process

Puddling was one step in one of the most important processes of making the first appreciable volumes of high-grade bar iron during the Industrial Revolution. In the original puddling technique, molten iron in a reverberatory furnace was stirred with rods, which were consumed in the process. It was one of the first processes for making bar iron without charcoal in Europe, although much earlier coal-based processes had existed in China. Eventually, the furnace would be used to make small quantities of specialty steels.

Gelatin mixture of peptides and proteins derived from connective tissues of animals

Gelatin or gelatine is a translucent, colorless, flavorless food ingredient, derived from collagen taken from animal body parts. Brittle when dry and gummy when moist, it is also called hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, gelatine hydrolysate, hydrolyzed gelatine, and collagen peptides. It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food, medications, drug and vitamin capsules, photographic films and papers, and cosmetics.

Transatlantic telegraph cable

A transatlantic telegraph cable is an undersea cable running under the Atlantic Ocean used for telegraph communications. The first was laid across the floor of the Atlantic from Telegraph Field, Foilhommerum Bay, Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart's Content in eastern Newfoundland. The first communications occurred August 16, 1858, reducing the communication time between North America and Europe from ten days – the time it took to deliver a message by ship – to a matter of minutes. Transatlantic telegraph cables have been replaced by transatlantic telecommunications cables.

During the Gilded Age, Cooper became an ardent critic of the gold standard and the debt-based monetary system of bank currency, advocating instead for government-issued banknotes. Cooper was nominated for president at the 1876 Greenback National Convention, and the Greenback ticket of Cooper and Samuel Fenton Cary won just under one percent of the popular vote in the 1876 general election. His son, Edward Cooper, and his son-in-law, Abram Hewitt, both served as Mayor of New York City.

Gilded Age era in the history of the USA between the late 1860s and the 1890s

The Gilded Age in United States history is an era that occurred during the late 19th century, from the 1870s to about 1900. The term for this period came into use in the 1920s and 1930s and was derived from writer Mark Twain's and Charles Dudley Warner's 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which satirized an era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding. The early half of the Gilded Age roughly coincided with the middle portion of the Victorian era in Britain and the Belle Époque in France. Its beginning, in the years after the American Civil War, overlaps the Reconstruction Era. It was followed in the 1890s by the Progressive Era.

Gold standard monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold

A gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. Three types can be distinguished: specie, bullion, and exchange.

Banknote Form of physical currency made of paper, cotton or polymer

A banknote is a type of negotiable promissory note, made by a bank, payable to the bearer on demand. Banknotes were originally issued by commercial banks, which were legally required to redeem the notes for legal tender when presented to the chief cashier of the originating bank. These commercial banknotes only traded at face value in the market served by the issuing bank. Commercial banknotes have primarily been replaced by national banknotes issued by central banks.

Early years

Peter Cooper was adopted in New York City of Dutch, English and Huguenot descent, [1] the fifth child of John Cooper, a Methodist hatmaker from Newburgh, New York [1] [2] He worked as a coachmaker's apprentice, cabinet maker, hatmaker, brewer and grocer, [1] [3] and was throughout a tinkerer: he developed a cloth-shearing machine which he attempted to sell, as well as an endless chain he intended to be used to pull barges and boats on the newly completed Erie Canal (which was routed west to east across upper New York State from Lake Erie to the upper Hudson River) which its chief supporter, the Governor of New York, De Witt Clinton approved of, but which Cooper was unable to sell. [1]

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Newburgh, New York City in New York, United States

Newburgh is a city in Orange County, New York, United States, 60 miles (97 km) north of New York City, and 90 miles (140 km) south of Albany, on the Hudson River. Newburgh is a part of the New York CSA. The Newburgh area was first settled in the early 18th century by the Germans and British. During the American Revolution, Newburgh served as the headquarters of the Continental Army. Prior to its chartering in 1865, the city of Newburgh was part of the town of Newburgh; the town now borders the city to the north and west. East of the city is the Hudson River; the city of Beacon, New York is across the river; and it is connected to Newburgh via the Newburgh–Beacon Bridge. The entire southern boundary of the city is with the town of New Windsor. Most of this boundary is formed by Quassaick Creek. In May 2016, the city requested help for its PFOS contaminated water supply under Superfund.

Barge flat-bottomed boat, built mainly for river, canal transport of heavy goods, usually pushed by tugboats

A barge is a flat-bottomed ship, built mainly for river and canal transport of heavy goods. Some barges are not self-propelled and must be towed or pushed by towboats, canal barges or towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath. Barges contended with the railway in the early Industrial Revolution, but were outcompeted in the carriage of high-value items due to the higher speed, falling costs and route flexibility of railways.

In 1821, Cooper purchased a glue factory on Sunfish Pond on east side Manhattan Island for $2,000 at Kips Bay, where he had access to raw materials from the nearby slaughterhouses, and ran it as a successful business for many years, [4] producing a profit of $10,000 (equivalent to roughly $200,000 in 21st century value today) within 2 years, developing new ways to produce glues and cements, gelatin, isinglass and other products, and becoming the city's premier provider to tanners (leather), manufacturers of paints, and dry-goods merchants. [5] The effluent from his successful factory eventually polluted the pond so much to the extent that in 1839 it had to be drained and backfilled for eventual building construction. [5]

Slaughterhouse facility where animals are killed for consumption as food products

A slaughterhouse or abattoir is a facility where animals are slaughtered, most often to provide food for humans. Slaughterhouses supply meat, which then becomes the responsibility of a packaging facility.

Isinglass is a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. It is a form of collagen used mainly for the clarification or fining of some beer and wine. It can also be cooked into a paste for specialised gluing purposes.

Tanning (leather) process of treating animal skin to produce leather

Tanning is the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather. A tannery is the place where the skins are processed.

Business career

Cartoon of Peter Cooper by Thomas Nast Peter Cooper cartoon.jpg
Cartoon of Peter Cooper by Thomas Nast

Having been convinced that the proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would drive up prices for land in Maryland, Cooper used his profits to buy 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land there in 1828 and began to develop them, draining swampland and flattening hills, during which he discovered iron ore on his property. Seeing the B&O as a natural market for iron rails to be made from his ore, he founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, and when the railroad developed technical problems, he put together the Tom Thumb steam locomotive for them in 1830 from various old parts, including musket barrels, and some small-scale steam engines he had fiddled with back in New York. The engine was a rousing success, prompting investors to buy stock in B&O, which enabled the company to buy Cooper's iron rails, making him what would be his first fortune. [5]

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad former rail system in the United States of America

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first common carrier railroad and the oldest railroad in the United States, with its first section opening in 1830. It came into being mostly because the city of Baltimore wanted to compete with the newly constructed Erie Canal and another canal being proposed by Pennsylvania, which would have connected Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. At first this railroad was located entirely in the state of Maryland, with an original line built from the port of Baltimore west to Sandy Hook.

Maryland State of the United States of America

Maryland is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east. The state's largest city is Baltimore, and its capital is Annapolis. Among its occasional nicknames are Old Line State, the Free State, and the Chesapeake Bay State. It is named after the English queen Henrietta Maria, known in England as Queen Mary.

Cooper began operating an iron rolling mill in New York beginning in 1836, where he was the first to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron. [6] Cooper later moved the mill to Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River to be closer to the sources of the raw materials the works needed. His son and son-in-law, Edward Cooper and Abram S. Hewitt, later expanded the Trenton facility into a giant complex employing 2,000 people, in which iron was taken from raw material to finished product. [7]

Cooper also operated a successful glue factory in Gowanda, New York that produced glue for decades. [8] [9] A glue factory was originally started in association with the Gaensslen Tannery, there, in 1874, though the first construction of the glue factory's plant, originally owned by Richard Wilhelm and known as the Eastern Tanners Glue Company, began on May 5, 1904. [9] Gowanda, therefore, was known as America's glue capital. [9]

Cooper owned 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". [10]

Cooper later invested in real estate and insurance, and became one of the richest men in New York City. [11] [12] Despite this, he lived relatively simply in an age when the rich were indulging in more and more luxury. He 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. [11]

In 1854, Cooper 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 [13] on the Atlantic Coast and in some Gulf coast states. [14] He was among those supervising the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. [15]

1879 Puck cartoon shows Cooper spanking his son Mayor Edward Cooper Peter Cooper spanking Ed Cooper (1879 political cartoon).jpg
1879 Puck cartoon shows Cooper spanking his son Mayor Edward Cooper

Political views and career

In 1840, Cooper became an alderman of New York City.

Prior to the Civil War, Cooper was 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, Cooper 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.

Cooper's efforts led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners, which oversaw Ulysses S. Grant's Peace Policy. Between 1870 and 1875, Cooper 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.

Cooper was an ardent critic of the gold standard and the debt-based monetary system of bank currency. Throughout the depression from 1873–78, he said that usury was the foremost political problem of the day. He strongly advocated a credit-based, Government-issued currency of United States Notes. In 1883 his addresses, letters and articles on public affairs were compiled into a book, Ideas for a Science of Good Government. [16]

Presidential candidacy

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.[ citation needed ] At the age of 85 years, Cooper is the oldest person ever nominated by any political party for President of the United States.[ citation needed ] The election was won by Rutherford Birchard Hayes of the Republican Party. Cooper was surpassed by another unsuccessful candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of the Democratic Party.

A political family

Sarah Cooper Sarah Cooper b1793.jpg
Sarah Cooper
Peter Cooper posed with a young child believed to be one of his granddaughters. Peter Cooper daguerreotype.png
Peter Cooper posed with a young child believed to be one of his granddaughters.

In 1813, Cooper married Sarah Bedell (1793–1869). Of their six children, only two survived past the age of four years: a son, Edward and a daughter, Sarah Amelia. [17] [18] Edward served as Mayor of New York City, as would the husband of Sarah Amelia, Abram S. Hewitt, a man also heavily involved in inventions and industrialization.

Peter Cooper's granddaughters, Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt and Amy Hewitt Green founded the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, then named the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, in 1895. It was originally part of Cooper Union, but since 1967 has been a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. [19]

Religious views

Cooper was a Unitarian who regularly attended the services of Henry Whitney Bellows, and his views were Universalistic and non-sectarian. [20] In 1873 he wrote:

I look to see the day when the teachers of Christianity will rise above all the cramping powers and conflicting creeds and systems of human device, when they will beseech mankind by all the mercies of God to be reconciled to the government of love, the only government that can ever bring the kingdom of heaven into the hearts of mankind either here or hereafter. [20]

Cooper Union

Cooper had for many years held an interest in adult education: he had served as head of the Public School Society, a private organization which ran New York City's free schools using city money, [21] when it began evening classes in 1848. [22] Cooper conceived of the idea of having a free institute in New York, similar to the École Polytechnique (Polytechnical School) in Paris, which would offer free practical education to adults in the mechanical arts and science, to help prepare young men and women of the working classes for success in business.

In 1853, he 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. Cooper started a Women's School of Design, which offered daytime courses in engraving, lithography, painting on china and drawing. [22]

The new institution soon became an important part of the community. The Great Hall was a place where the pressing civic controversies of the day could be debated, and, unusually, radical views were not excluded. In addition, the Union's library, unlike the nearby Astor, Mercantile and New York Society Libraries, was open until 10:00 at night, so that working people could make use of them after work hours. [22]

Today Cooper Union [23] 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 awarded all its students with a full scholarship until fall 2014. [24]


In 1851, Cooper was one of the founders of Children's Village, originally an orphanage called "New York Juvenile Asylum", one of the oldest non-profit organizations in the United States. [25]

Death and legacy

Cooper died on April 4, 1883 at the age of 92 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Aside from Cooper Union, the Peter Cooper Village apartment complex in Manhattan; the Peter Cooper Elementary School in Ringwood, New Jersey; the Cooper School in Superior, Wisconsin, the Peter Cooper Station post office; Cooper Park in Brooklyn, and Cooper Square in Manhattan are named in his honor.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Burrows & Wallace p.563
  2. Raymond p.1
  3. Raymond p.14
  4. Raymond p.19
  5. 1 2 3 Burrows & Wallace p.564
  6. Raymond p.22
  7. Burrows & Wallace p.662
  8. Community gets gift of Hollywood Theater for restoration, Buffalo News - Southern Tier Edition, Buffalo, NY: Berkshire Hathaway, 16 December 1996, O'Brien, B. | Accessdate 2 November 2013.
  9. 1 2 3 Kirby, C.D. (1976). The Early History of Gowanda and The Beautiful Land of the Cattaraugus. Gowanda, NY: Niagara Frontier Publishing Company, Inc./Gowanda Area Bi-Centennial Committee, Inc.
  10. Topper, Robert Q. "Peter Cooper as Chemical Engineer: The Invention of The Gelatin Dessert" on the Cooper Union website
  11. 1 2 Burrows & Wallace p.725
  12. In 1856, Cooper was one of the 9,122 individuals in New York City whose net worth for tax assessment purposes was over $10,000. Burrows & Wallace p.712
  13. Burrows & Wallace p.675
  14. Harding, Robert S. and Oswald, Alison "Western Union Telegraph Company Records 1820–1995" Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The American Telegraph Company would eventually, through mergers and buy outs, become part of Western Union.
  15. "Local Intelligence.; The Atlantic Telegraph Enterprise. Meeting of Merchants at the Chamber of Commerce—Interesting Addresses by Cyrus W. Field, Peter Cooper, E.E. Morgan, the Mayor, A.A. Low and others—Subscriptions to the Capital Stock of the Company. Peter Cooper's Remarks". New York Times. March 5, 1863. Retrieved 2010-06-23. Another great advantage would result from the avoidance of any misunderstanding between Great Britain and the United States – one such prevention would more than pay for the cable.
  16. Cooper, Peter (1883). Ideas for a Science of Good Government. In Adddresses, Letters and Articles on a Strictly National Currency, Tariff, and Civil Service. New York: Trow's Printing and Bookbinding Co.
  17. Hughes, Thomas (1886). Life and Times of Peter Cooper. London: MACMILLAN AND CO. pp. 222–226. Retrieved 23 May 2013. Our fifth child was my son Edward, who is still living....My sixth and last child, was our daughter Sarah Amelia, now Mrs. Hewitt.
  18. Sarah Cooper (1793–1869) Archived 2012-03-20 at the Wayback Machine .
  19. "About the Museum" Archived 2012-12-19 at the Wayback Machine on the Cooper-Hewitt website
  20. 1 2 Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America: A History of Its Origin and Development, v.4 Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1902. pp.408-09
  21. Burrows & Wallace p.780
  22. 1 2 3 Burrows & Wallace p.782
  23. Gordon, John. "Peter Cooper". The Philanthropy Roundtable. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  25. "Our City Charities - No, IIL The New-York Juvenile Asylum". The New York Times . January 31, 1860. Retrieved November 21, 2015.


Party political offices
New political party Greenback nominee for President of the United States
Succeeded by
James B. Weaver