The Honest Man

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It was a moment ready-made for an empirical inventor like Cooper. “In the abandonment of [the B&O],” he wrote later, “I saw the defeat of my enterprise. It would have been a terrible defeat to me, for I saw that the growth of the city of Baltimore depended upon the success of that road, and I had purchased that tract with a view of taking advantage of the rapid growth of the city which was anticipated.” What to do? Obviously, there was only one solution. He went to the president of the railroad and promised that he “would put a small locomotive on” that, he declared, would pull a train around those short curves. And sure enough, as he said later, “I got up a little locomotive.”

This was the celebrated “Tom Thumb,” the first American locomotive to run on an American railroad. It was, as Cooper himself put it, “about as temporary [a makeshift] as any you ever saw,” but considered as a means of demonstrating that the railroad had a glossy future—and that in consequence, Cooper’s flier in Baltimore real estate would pay off—it was a rousing success. Cooper conducted his lesson in applied mechanics at the Mount Clare Railroad Shop. Here he found some old wheels, to which he rigged a platform. He sent to New York for the rotary steam engine that he had invented some years before; it had one cylinder and generated one horsepower. He had a boiler made; it was five or six feet high, with a diameter of twenty inches; “it was difficult to imagine,” said a man who examined it later, “that it had ever generated steam enough to drive a coffee mill.” When it came to attaching the engine to the boiler, Cooper was stumped, but only momentarily. “I couldn’t find any iron pipes,” he wrote later. “The fact is that there were none for sale in this country. So I took two muskets and broke off the wood part, and used the barrels for tubing to the boiler, using one on one side and the other on the other.” To keep a head of steam, he contrived a “blowing apparatus, driven by a drum attached to one of the car wheels, over which passed a cord that in its turn worked a pulley on the shaft of the blower.” To save space on his platform, he stood his boiler up straight. This improvised miracle was ready for the road in July, 1830, but there ensued a series of those tragicomic mishaps that seem always to attend on an initial experiment of any significance: a wheel broke, once, twice, thrice; some miscreant made off by night with some copper chopped from the engine, necessitating a week’s delay. At length, however, in August, with six men on the engine platform and another three dozen perched on a car behind, Cooper drove his locomotive the thirteen miles to Ellicott’s Mills in an hour and twelve minutes and back again in fifty-seven minutes. (When they were hurtling along at their top speed of eighteen m.p.h., some of the party whipped out pencil and paper and wrote “some connected sentences to prove that even at great velocity it was possible to do so.”)

Here was a sensation, but there was better to come, for Baltimore’s stagecoach owners were determined to squash this new competition before it got out of hand. And so a match was arranged: the Tom Thumb vs. a powerful gray horse hitched to a car on a parallel track. The race would be run from the Relay House eight miles into town.

“Away went horse and engine,” reported John H.B. Latrobe, a B&O lawyer who was an eyewitness, “the snort of the one and the puff of the other keeping time and time.” At first the horse drew ahead, for the engine needed time to get up a head of steam. “The blower whistled, the steam blew off in vapory clouds, the pace increased, the passengers shouted, the engine gained on the horse, soon it lapped him—the silk was plied—the race was neck and neck, nose and nose—then the engine passed the horse, and a great hurrah hailed the victory.” Alas! too soon; for Cooper’s blower all at once conked out: “the horse gained on the machine, and passed it; and although the band was presently replaced, and steam again did its best, the horse was too far ahead to be overtaken, and came in the winner of the race.”

The defeat provoked some merriment at Cooper’s expense, but he was satisfied. For one thing, as he noted, “the bonds of the [B&O] were sold at once, and there was no longer any doubt as to the success of the line.” For another, his real-estate venture panned out very well indeed: he sold the land in 1832 at a profit; some of his payment was in stock worth only $44 a share, but it obligingly rose to $235 a share before he sold the last of it. Out of what had at first seemed a most unhappy investment, Cooper got a handsome return and a full measure of fame.

Again, when a man to whom he had loaned $5,000 went bankrupt in the severe Panic of 1837, Cooper looked like a loser. All he got in compensation was his debtor’s small and floundering wire factory, and what did he know about making wire? Precisely nothing. But almost at once he was fighting customers off like flies from honey. For—thanks to the new railroads, structural iron bridges, and telegraph—the national economy in the 1840s was starving for iron. It began to seem as though iron would prove even more profitable than glue. Cooper was obliged to build a rolling mill; soon he was experimenting with anthracite for puddling; naturally he invented an improved blast furnace; and by 1847 he had organized the Trenton Iron Company, which was to become one of the biggest in the country.