Peter Cooper Celebration Sought

| July/August 1990

  • Peter Cooper

  • Peter Cooper

We recently received a letter from Thomas F. Schweitzer, of 89-19 218 Street, Queens Village, Long Island, New York 11427. The letter was a photocopy of one sent by a group called Long Islanders: Enthusiasts of Long Island History, to the governors of Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. In the letter, Mr. Schweitzer asks that a year-long commission be established to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1791 birth of Peter Cooper.

For the benefit of our readers, we are reprinting an entry from the 1910 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica which highlights Cooper's accomplishments. The Long Islanders are also trying to have a stamp issued in Cooper's honor in 1991.

Peter Cooper (1791-1883), American manufacturer, inventor and philanthropist, was born in New York City on the 12th of February 1791. 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 was employed 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; at Philipsburg, 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, New found land & 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. 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.


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