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Ezra Cornell

co-founder of Western Union and endower of Cornell University

Ezra Cornell

Ezra Cornell was born in Westchester, New York, on January 11, 1807. His family moved around some while he was growing up, and finally settled in De Ruyter, New York, in 1819. Ezra had little chance for a formal education while growing up, but what he lacked in book learning he more than made up for with practical experience. He began helping in his father's pottery business at the age of six, began working on the family farm at age 12, and learned carpentry skills at the age of 17 when he helped his father build a new structure for the pottery businesss. In 1825, he built a two-story house for his parents and siblings.

In 1826, Cornell left home and made his way to Syracuse, where he found work as a journeyman carpenter. He then moved to Homer, where he worked in a shop that produced wool-carding machinery. He spent his free time studying mechanical handbooks. In 1828 he moved to Ithaca, where he found work first as a carpenter and then as a mechanic for a series of plaster and flour mills owned by Jeremiah S. Beebe. Within a very short time Cornell had designed and built a tunnel for a new mill race, a stone dam, and a new flour mill, and by 1832 he was managing all of Beebe's mills in the Ithaca area.

On March 19, 1831, Cornell married Mary Ann Wood. He then bargained with Beebe for a building lot and acreage for a garden and orchard, on which he built a one-and-a-half-story frame house ("The Nook"). The couple ultimately had nine children -- three sons died in infancy and their eldest daughter at age 15, but three sons and two daughters reached adulthood.

Ezra and Mary Cornell with daughter Emma
Ezra and Mary Cornell with daughter Emma

First Business Venture

By the mid-1830's, Cornell was not only managing Beebe's mills, he was also speculating in real estate and had begun dabbling in politics. But the Panic of 1837 left Ithaca in financial shambles, and Cornell lost his job when Beebe sold his milling concerns in 1839. Many Ithaca residents left for better opportunities elsewhere but Cornell chose to stay, and simply redirected his interests. He tried establishing a grocery store, but with little success; he also built houses on land he bought during the boom, but again had little success at turning a profit. He did, however, have some success at raising sheep, as well as in agricultural experimentation; neither venture, however, brought in enough money to support his family.

In 1842, Cornell bought patent rights for a new kind of plow designed in Ithaca. He hoped to make a profit by selling manufacturing and sales rights to machinists and merchants in Maine and Georgia (the only two states in which his rights were valid). He left for Maine in the spring, and then, after several months there, traveled (mostly by foot) to Georgia. He had little success with this venture, however.

The Telegraph

While in Maine, Cornell happened to meet F.O.J. Smith, who had won a contract from Samuel F.B. Morse to lay the lead pipe that would enclose underground telegraph wires between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. When Cornell next saw Smith in the summer of 1843, Smith was struggling to design a machine with which to lay the pipe and cable. At Smith's request, Cornell designed a plow that could dig the trench, lay the cable, and then bury it, all in one pass. Morse himself witnessed a demonstration of Cornell's machine, and then hired Cornell to lay cable for a test line. Cornell began working from Washington in October, but as he went along he became concerned that the insulation of the wires was defective; he notified Morse, and then devised a machine that could withdraw the wires from the pipes so they could be reinsulated and then replaced.

patent drawing of Cornell's cable-laying machine
patent drawing of Cornell's cable-laying machine

Over the winter of 1843 Cornell studied works on electricity and magnetism, and became convinced that underground wiring was impractical and that stringing telegraph wires on glass-insulated poles would be a much better method. Morse agreed, and hired Cornell to build an overhead line from Washington to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, the message "What hath God wrought" was tapped out by Morse and transmitted over the line built by Cornell.

Over the next several years, Cornell organized various small companies to build telegraph lines throughout New York, as well as west to Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, etc., often preceding the railroad into towns along the way. Some of these companies were successful and earned profits for Cornell, but many others were not.

In 1851, the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was organized in Rochester by Hiram Sibley and others, with the goal of creating one great telegraph system with unified and efficient operations. Meanwhile, Cornell bought back one of his bankrupt companies and renamed it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company, with the same goal as Sibley. After a few years of cutthroat competition between the two men it was decided that it would be in everyone's best interest to merge the two companies; the Western Union Telegraph Company was organized in 1855, and Cornell remained the company's largest stockholder until his death. It was this venture that would ultimately make Cornell a millionaire.

Political "Career"

In 1837, Cornell was a delegate to the Tompkins County Whig convention. In 1840 he actively supported the Whig Party presidential ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. He supported Henry Clay's bid for the presidency in 1844, and vehemently opposed war with Mexico in 1846.

A staunch opponent of slavery, Cornell was an early supporter of the Republican Party, and was a delegate to the first Republican National Convention in 1856. He actively campaigned for Abraham Lincoln, and was present at Lincoln's inauguration in 1861.

In 1861, Cornell was elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly, where he served as chairman of the Committee on Agriculture. He was elected to the New York Senate in 1863, and served in that body for one four-year term.

Cornell University

In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which appropriated public lands to aid the founding of state agricultural and mechanical colleges. Almost immediately after its passage, Cornell began lobbying for New York to take advantage of the act. He pledged his own farm, plus a half-million-dollar endowment, to the endeavor, and, in 1865, New York passed legislation that led to the founding of Cornell University.

Once the groundwork had been laid, Cornell personally supervised the building of the university. He supervised construction of the first buildings, oversaw the purchase of equipment, books, and collections, and even personally administered the disposition of funds dispersed under the Land Grant Act and insured that the university would receive a substantial return on any and all investments of those funds. He also saw to it that the university was free of all religious ties, and that it placed appropriate emphasis on agricultural and engineering training; he also made sure it provided education for women and poor students. Cornell University admitted its first class on October 7, 1868; with 412 students, it was the largest entering class ever admitted to an American college up to that time.

Ezra Cornell died on December 9, 1874, and was interred in Sage Chapel on the campus of the university he founded.


Ezra Cornell: A Nineteenth-Century Life

See Also

Samuel F.B. Morse
Mexican-American War
Abraham Lincoln

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This page was last updated on January 11, 2019.