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inventor of the steam-powered locomotive, financier of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and founder of the Cooper Union
Peter Cooper was born in New York City on February 12, 1791. His formal education was very limited, but he evidenced an inventive and inquisitive mind and from an early age was put to work picking fur from rabbit skins in his family's hatmaking business. At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to a coach maker, and he did his job so well that he was given a salary. At the end of his apprenticeship his bosses offered him a loan to go into coach making on his own, but he chose instead to manufacture and sell machines for shearing cloth. The War of 1812 kept his business alive, but when the war ended he converted his facility into a factory for making furniture. He eventually sold his furniture factory and took an interest in a grocery business. Although none of these ventures were immensely successful financially, each of them allowed Cooper to live well, and to invest in new ventures.
By 1824, Cooper was in the glue-making business. The special process he patented in 1830 made him his first fortune. He subsequently entrusted the glue business to his son and son-in-law and founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore to take advantage of an iron ore mine he had disvocered. Initially founded to supply the newly created Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the iron works was soon turned into a "laboratory" so Cooper could develop a better locomotive. The result was the "Tom Thumb," the first steam-powered locomotive in the world, which he patented in 1830.
In 1836, Cooper opened an iron rolling mill in New York which subsequently became the first to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron. Cooper later moved the mill to Trenton, New Jersey, where, in 1854, it produced the world's first structural iron beams for use in building construction.
In 1854, Cooper became a co-founder and principal investor of New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Co., which subsequently became the American Telegraph Company. In 1858, the American Telegraph Company laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
In addition to the inventions and innovations already described, Cooper was also responsible for a process to manufacture gelatin, a machine for shaping wheel hubs, a method of obtaining power from ocean tides, a rotary steam engine, a musical cradle, and a method for making salt.
Cooper's many business ventures made him the richest man in New York City, but rather than flaunt his wealth he chose to put it to good use. In 1854, he established the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art to provide free courses in science, engineering, and art to both men and women. The Cooper Union Building, which was one of the first buildings ever constructed entirely with structural iron beams to form its framework, was completed in 1859. The Cooper Union Library was the first free public reading room in New York City, and the building's Great Hall has hosted social and political reformers and lectures on science and government. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Barack Obama all spoke in the Great Hall before being elected President; and, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton and Obama are just some of the Presidents who have delivered address from the Great Hall. Thomas Edison and Felix Frankfurter were both students at Cooper Union; the Red Cross and the N.A.A.C.P. were both organized there; and, Susan B. Anthony had her offices in the building. The Cooper Union still offers tuition-free bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, and bachelor's degrees in architecture and art; free summer internship research programs and weekend art programs for high shool students; and operates the oldest continuing education program in the country.
Peter Cooper was also active in the anti-slavery movement. His interest in the Indian reform movement led to his organizing the United States Indian Commission, dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans and the elimination of warfare in western territories. As a member of the New York City Board of Aldermen, he advocated paid police and firemen, public schools, and improved public sanitation. In 1876, he was the Greenback Party's candidate for President; 85 years old at the time, he is the oldest person to ever run for President of the United States. He finished well out of the running in the general election, which was ultimately won by Rutherford B. Hayes.
Peter Cooper died in New York City on April 4, 1883.
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