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Peter Cooper

Birthdate: (92)
Birthplace: New York, New York
Death: April 4, 1883 (92)
New York, New York
Place of Burial: Kings, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Obadiah Cooper and Margaret Cooper
Husband of Sarah Cooper
Father of John Campbel Cooper; Benjamin Bedell Cooper; Sarah Amanda Cooper; Edward Cooper, Mayor of New York City; Peter William Cooper and 2 others
Brother of Edward Cooper; William Cooper; Sarah Cooper; Martha Cooper; James Cooper and 1 other
Half brother of John Obadiah Cooper

Managed by: Mike Mahaffie
Last Updated:

About Peter Cooper

Peter Cooper had little formal training, but became a successful inventor, industrialist, and philanthropist.

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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.

Early life

Peter Cooper was born in New York City of mixed Dutch, English and Huguenot descent, the fifth child of John Cooper, a Methodist hat-maker from Newburgh, New York He worked as coach-maker's apprentice, cabinet maker, hat-maker, 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, developing 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.

Business career

Having been convinced that the proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would drive up prices for land in Maryland, Cooper used his profits to buy 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land there in 1828 and began to develop them, draining swampland and flattening hills, during which he discovered iron ore on his property. Seeing the B&O as a natural market for iron rails to be made from his ore, he founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, and when the railroad developed technical problems, he put together the Tom Thumb steam locomotive for them in 1830 from various old parts, including musket barrels, and some small-scale steam engines he had fiddled with back in New York. The engine was a rousing success, prompting investors to buy stock in B&O, which enabled the company to buy Cooper's iron rails, making him what would be his first fortune.

Cooper began operating an iron rolling mill in New York beginning in 1836, where he was the first to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron. Cooper later moved the mill to Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River to be closer to the sources of the raw materials the works needed. His son and son-in-law, Edward Cooper and Abram S. Hewitt, later expanded the Trenton facility into a giant complex employing 2,000 people, in which iron was taken from raw material to finished product.

Cooper later invested in real estate and insurance, and became one of the richest men in New York City. Despite this, he lived relatively simply in an age when the rich were indulging in more and more luxury. He dressed in simple, plain clothes, and limited his household to only two servants; when his wife bought an expensive and elaborate carriage, he returned it for a more sedate and cheaper one. Cooper remained in his home at Fourth Avenue and 28th Street even after the New York and Harlem Railroad established freight yards where cattle cars were parked practically outside his front door, although he did move to the more genteel Gramercy Park development in 1850.

In 1854, Cooper was one of five men who met at the house of Cyrus West Field in Gramercy Park to form the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company, and, in 1855, the American Telegraph Company, which bought up competitors and established extensive control over the expanding American network on the Atlantic Coast and in some Gulf coast states He was among those supervising the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858.

Political views and career

In 1840, Cooper became an alderman of New York City.

Prior to the Civil War, Cooper was active in the anti-slavery movement and promoted the application of Christian concepts to solve social injustice. He was a strong supporter of the Union cause during the war and an advocate of the government issue of paper money.

Influenced by the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Cooper became involved in the Indian reform movement, organizing the privately funded United States Indian Commission. This organization, whose members included William E. Dodge and Henry Ward Beecher, was dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans in the United States and the elimination of warfare in the western territories. Cooper's efforts led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners, which oversaw Ulysses S. Grant's Peace Policy. Between 1870 and 1875, Cooper sponsored Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., New York City, and other Eastern cities. These delegations met with Indian rights advocates and addressed the public on United States Indian policy. Speakers included: Red Cloud, Little Raven and Alfred B. Meacham and a delegation of Modoc and Klamath Indians.

Cooper was an ardent critic of the gold standard and the debt-based monetary system of bank currency. Throughout the depression from 1873–78, he said that usury was the foremost political problem of the day. He strongly advocated a credit-based, Government-issued currency of United States Notes. In 1883 his addresses, letters and articles on public affairs were compiled into a book, Ideas for a Science of Good Government.

Presidential candidacy

Cooper was encouraged to run in the 1876 presidential election for the Greenback Party without any hope of being elected. His running mate was Samuel Fenton Cary. The campaign cost more than $25,000. At the age of 85 years, Cooper is the oldest person ever nominated by any political party for the office of President of the United States in the history of the nation. The election was won by Rutherford Birchard Hayes of the Republican Party. Cooper was surpassed by another unsuccessful candidate: Samuel Jones Tilden of the Democratic Party.

A political family

Cooper's son, Edward Cooper, would serve as Mayor of New York City, as would his daughter Sarah Amelia's husband, Abram S. Hewitt, a man also heavily involved in inventions and industrialization.

Cooper Union

Cooper had for many years held an interest in adult education: he had served as head of the Public School Society – a private organization which ran New York City's free schools using city money – when it began evening classes in 1848. Cooper conceived of the idea of having a free institute in New York, similar to the École Polytechnique (Polytechnical School) in Paris, which would offer free practical education to adults in the mechanical arts and science, to help prepare young men and women of the working classes for success in business.

In 1853 he broke ground for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a private college in New York, completing the building in 1859 at the cost of $600,000. Cooper Union offered open-admission night classes available to men and women alike, and attracted 2,000 responses to its initial offering, although 600 later dropped out. The classes were non-sectarian, and women were treated equally with men, although 95% of the students were male. Cooper started a Women's School of Design, which offered daytime courses in engraving, lithography, painting on china and drawing. The new institution soon became an important part of the community. The Great Hall was a place where the pressing civic controversies of the day could be debated – and, unusually, radical views were not excluded. In addition, the Union's library, unlike the nearby Astor, Mercantile and New York Society Libraries, was open until 10:00 at night, so that working people could make use of them after work hours.

Today Cooper Union is recognized as one of the leading American colleges in the fields of architecture, engineering, and art. Carrying on Peter Cooper's belief that college education should be free, the Cooper Union awards all its students with a full scholarship.


Peter Cooper died on April 4, 1883 at the age of 92. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

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Peter Cooper's Timeline

February 12, 1791
New York, New York
September 5, 1814
Age 23
December 31, 1815
Age 24
December 18, 1820
Age 29
New York, New York
December 20, 1822
Age 31
New York, New York
October 26, 1824
Age 33
New York, New York
Age 38
August 16, 1840
Age 49
April 4, 1883
Age 92
New York, New York