Today, a millionaire who believed that wealth
doesn't belong to the rich. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Few great 19th-century
builders of America are as compelling as Peter
Cooper. Cooper, born in 1791 in New York City, was
a reckless kid, scarred by many accidents. He went
on to become a great American inventor, a creative
social reformer, and a wealthy egalitarian.
In his teens, apprenticed to a coach-maker, Cooper
invented a machine for shaping wheel hubs. It was
still in use when he died. Next he cooked up a
complex scheme for getting power out of ocean
tides. He built a model and showed it to Robert
Fulton. Fulton gave Cooper no response at all --
only stony silence.
That event carved another scar into Cooper. He kept
the model all his life. Why? Was it a dangling
hope? Maybe it was his unhealed wound. We do not
But he came away determined to invent. He patented
a musical cradle, a process for making salt, a
rotary steam engine. In 1825 he built America's
first steam locomotive, the Tom
Meanwhile, he acquired a glue factory. He built an
iron mill. He grew rich. Yet Peter Cooper was not
just another rapacious 19th-century industrialist.
He was fueled by idealism.
He was a passionate abolitionist and a strong
Lincoln supporter. He made a remarkable suggestion
for averting civil war. He proposed that the North
should simply buy all the slaves and free them. If
buying off four million slaves sounds crazy --
well, compare it with four billion dollars and half
a million lives lost in that war. Then it gains a
bit in sanity.
Cooper had a flair for far-out, far-seeing
projects. He was an important backer of the
trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. He helped bring
Bessemer steelmaking to America.
But the invention that captures my fancy was New
York's Cooper Union. Why Union? Because the school
was meant to unite science and art. More
remarkably, it carried out Cooper's belief that
"education be as free as water and air." It's
always been small and tuition-free. If you have the
talent to attend, you're awarded a scholarship.
Cooper meant his college to educate women as well
as men. He meant it to serve the disadvantaged.
Cooper himself had only one year of schooling. He
was barely literate. In fact, his spelling was just
as inventive as his machines and his politics.
In the end, one of his greatest contributions lay
up on the third floor of Cooper Union. It was a
public reading room. People poured into it from all
over town. You see, right along with free
education, Cooper helped shape another very new,
and uniquely American, institution. That was the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Mack, E.C., Peter Cooper: Citizen of New
York New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.
Nevins, A., Abram S. Hewitt, With Some
Account of Peter Cooper. New York: Harper
& Brothers, Publishers, 1935. (Hewitt was
Cooper's son-in-law, and inventor and craftsman in
his own right, and long-time associate of Cooper.)
Dunn, G., Peter Cooper (1791-1883) -- A
Mechanic of New York. New York: The Newcomen
Society in North America, 1949.
Gurko, M., The Lives and Times of Peter
Cooper. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company,
Too bad I didn't have time to talk about Cooper's
ill-fated run at the Presidency! When he was 85, he
ran on the Greenback ticket against Rutherford B.
Hayes. It was not one of the great 3rd party
efforts. He was a very distant also-ran, much
beloved by then by most of the people who voted
I am grateful to Mr. Patrick Keeffe, Office of
Public Affairs at Cooper Union, for his counsel and
to Heather Moore, Special Collections, UH Library,
for suggesting I do an episode on Cooper.
For a more on Peter Cooper see the Cooper Union
And for more biographical information, see,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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