- Historic Sites
How Peter Cooper managed to make himself deeply rich and deeply beloved at the same time
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
Cooper quickly proved himself as adept a chemist as he was an engineer. The very first year he cleared ten thousand dollars in the glue business, five times what he had paid for the entire concern. Soon he had a nearmonopoly on glue in this country and was earning upward of a hundred thousand dollars a year, a vast income for the 182Os. He continued to live simply, though, and to plow his profits into other investments, including, in 1828, a three-thousand-acre parcel in Baltimore, where he and two partners built the Canton Iron Works.
They hoped that the new Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, whose tracks ran nearby, would be a source of much business as well as a cheap means of transporting supplies and products. But the nascent B&O was near bankruptcy. Its few miles of tracks were so twisty that George Stephenson- who had built the Manchester & Liverpool, the world’s first commercially successful railroad—declared that steam locomotives could not operate successfully on it. Cooper decided to prove the great engineer wrong. “I’ll knock an engine together in six weeks,” he declared, “that will pull carriages ten miles an hour.”
This he proceeded to do. He found some old wheels that would serve, rigged them to a platform, sent to New York for a rotary steam engine he had had built for an earlier experiment, bolted it to the platform, and then added a boiler. Piece by improvised piece, he assembled the Tom Thumb , the first locomotive built in America.
To everyone’s surprise (except, I suspect, Peter Cooper’s), the thing worked, pulling a carriage loaded with fortytwo people at speeds of up to eighteen miles an hour, then a breathtaking pace. Indeed, some of the passengers made a point of taking out paper and pencil and writing down coherent sentences while whizzing along to disprove the belief that the human brain could not function when a person was moving so fast.
Soon the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a going concern (literally), and the value of Cooper’s land in Baltimore soared. When he sold out a few years later, he took B&O stock in payment at a value of $44 a share. A few years later he sold it for $235 a share.
The Cooper industrial empire expanded rapidly after this, and within two decades he owned foundries, wiremaking plants, blast furnaces, and a rolling mill. By the 185Os twenty-five hundred men worked for Peter Cooper, no small number when you consider that there would not be a single industrial enterprise listed on the New York Stock Exchange until the 1870s.
Even in the 1850s, when Cooper was in his sixties, he was looking for new worlds to conquer. In 1858 he helped found the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, which, after many setbacks succeeded in laying the Atlantic ca.ble, a technological success that changed the world profoundly.
By this time Cooper was in the third phase of his life- that devoted to doing good works. He had always served on innumerable boards established to improve the quality of life in his city. Now he resolved to do something more concrete. He established Cooper Union in 1859 “for the advancement of science and art.” The building itself was interesting, being the first “fireproof” one erected in the country (using iron beams manufactured, of course, by Peter Cooper) and containing a shaft in anticipation of the invention of a practical elevator.
But it is the Union, not the building, that is really interesting, for in addition to advancing science and art, it existed for the advancement of those who wished to advance themselves. It offered free courses and lectures on numerous subjects in science and the arts, and it maintained a reading room that the general public was welcome to use. This the public did in vast numbers, often three thousand a week. To this day Cooper Union remains one of the rare private institutions of higher learning in the country that do not charge tuition.
Toward the end of his life, Peter Cooper remarked: “I have always recognized that the object of business is to make money in an honourable manner. I have endeavoured to remember that the object of life is to do good.”
I do not know if David Packard knew those words, but he, too, lived by them.