Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 148,101 pages of information and 233,633 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Peter Cooper (1791-1883) of New York
Peter Cooper (February 12, 1791 – April 4, 1883) was an American industrialist, inventor, philanthropist, and candidate for President of the United States. He designed and built the first steam locomotive in the U.S., and founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan, New York City.
Peter Cooper was born in New York City, the fifth child of John Cooper, a Methodist hatmaker from Newburgh, New York. He worked as coachmaker's apprentice, cabinet maker, hatmaker, brewer and grocer, 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 boats on the Erie Canal, which De Witt Clinton approved of, but which Cooper was unable to sell.
In 1824 Cooper purchased a glue factory on Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay, where he had access to raw materials from the nearby slaughterhouses, and ran it as a successful business for many years, devleoping new ways to produce glues and cements, gelatin, isinglass and other products, and becoming the city's premiere provider to tanners, manufacturers of paints, and dry-goods merchants. The effluent from his successful factory eventually polluted the pond to the extent that in 1839 it had to be drained and filled.
Peter Cooper died on April 4, 1883 at the age of 92. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
1883 Obituary 
Mr. PETER COOPER was born in New York on 12th February 1791, and died in the same city on the 4th April 1883. His father followed the trade of a hatter, and young Peter was called on, by the necessities of the family, to assist his father from an early age. In his seventeenth year the lad was apprenticed to a firm of carriage-builders in his native city. At this business he continued to labour until he reached his twenty-first year. His leisure hours, in the meantime, were occupied in acquiring that education which his father's humble circumstances prevented him from receiving at an earlier age.
Failing to find in coach-building the chances of promotion which be desired, Peter Cooper entered a woollen factory at Hempstead, Long Island. Here he invented a machine for shearing the nap from cloth, which brought him considerable profit. With the capital thus acquired he opened a cabinetmaker's shop; but as that did not succeed to his expectations, he started a grocery store, which business he again abandoned in favour of a glue factory. The latter trade prospered in his hands, and he continued to carry it on till the time of his death.
At that time it is said that not a single locomotive had been constructed in America. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company had built thirteen miles of its road, and was having so much difficulty with sharp curves as to think of abandoning the whole project. In the first, year they had expended all their subscribed capital,. and the stockholders, thoroughly discouraged, had refused to pay any more. At this juncture Mr. Cooper came to their aid by building a locomotive that would run on curves. When it was completed he attached it to an open box-car, and, himself acting as engineer, ran the directors over the thirteen miles of road, covering the distance in one hour and twenty minutes. The return trip was made in fifty-seven minutes. This decided the fortunes of the road, which was subsequently completed without further trouble.
Mr. Cooper erected a blast furnace and a rolling mill at Baltimore, which he sold to some capitalists, who formed the Canton Ironworks, in the stock of which he took a considerable share. The stock was taken at $44 per share, the par value being $100. It rapidly rose until it reached a value of $230 per share, when Mr. Cooper sold out. He afterwards built other ironworks in Fourth Avenue, New York, near his glue factory, and during the next two or three years he manufactured large quantities of wire. His works, however, were used mainly in puddling and rolling iron. He subsequently removed his rolling-mill from Fourth Avenue to Trenton, where he put up additional mills and forges, which have been carried on successfully until the present time.
Mr. Cooper was the first person to manufacture railroad iron in the' United States. In planning his future "Cooper Union," he desired it to be fire-proof, but was unable to obtain the necessary iron beams in America. He thereupon expended $75,000 in machinery for rolling beams and girders, being thus also the first in the country to engage in that enterprise.
Finding his iron trade speculations attended with success, Mr. Cooper built three large blast-furnaces at Philipsburg, Pa., and also bought the Durham furnace, three miles from Trenton. The production of his rolling-mills was not confined to building and railroad iron, but included also various kinds of wire, such as he had made in New York, and other specialties. He also bought the Andover iron-mines; and in order to transport the ore to his furnaces, he built a railroad eight miles in length, over which, for some years, he carried about 40,000 tons of ore per annum.
Mr. Cooper took an active interest in the development of the telegraph and cable system, and was identified with a number of the earlier enterprises set on foot in America.
In 1858 Mr. Cooper established the large and useful Institution in New York which bears his name. A scroll was buried with the corner-stone which bore the inscription: "The great object that I desire to accomplish by the erection of this Institution is to open the avenues of scientific knowledge to the youth of our city and country, and so unfold the volume of Nature that the young may see the beauties of creation, enjoy its blessings, and learn to love the Author from whom cometh every good and perfect gift." The school was "to be for ever devoted to the union of science and art in their application to the useful purposes of life." The original cost of the structure, exclusive of the site, which had been purchased about twenty five-years before for this very purpose, was $964,000. In 1869 Mr. Cooper gave a deed of trust of the property to a board of trustees, consisting of himself as president, Daniel F. Tiernan, Edward Cooper, Wilson G. Hunt, John E. Parsons, and Abram S. Hewitt. In the same year $10,000 were given to meet the immediate wants of the institution, and $20,000 for the establishment of a museum.
The Cooper Institute or Union has fully realised the end for which it was established. A recent report by the Curator states that "every department was full to overflowing. More than 3000 pupils had entered the various classes. Between 400 and 500 applications had been put on the file, to await the retirement of those who already held places in the classes. The instruction and lectures which these pupils enjoyed were given to them absolutely without charge. The expenses of the various departments amounted to $50,769, all of which was derived from the rent of stores and offices occupying three storeys of the building, from the rents of the larger and smaller halls for public meetings, and from an endowment fund of $150,000, chiefly designed for the support of the reading-room and the increase of the library."
In recognition of his early services in the development of the American iron trade, of which he had long been described as "the father," Mr Cooper was in 1875 elected an honorary member of the Iron and Steel Institute; and in 1879 the Council of the Institute awarded to the venerable patriarch the Bessemer gold medal, which, as he was unable to receive it in person, was accepted on his behalf and conveyed to him by his friend Mr. I. Lowthian Bell.