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This Day in History: Peter Cooper's American success story

On this day in 1791, an American entrepreneur is born. Because of this guy, we have Jell-o! ;) More importantly, we have a classic story of American drive, perseverance, charity—and success.

Peter Cooper did all this with only one year of formal schooling under his belt.

Cooper came from a family of modest means. As a kid, he worked alongside his father and learned many trades, including hat-making, brewing, and brick-making. At age 17, he was apprenticed to a coach builder. Later, he had a job making machines to shear cloth. Soon, he went into business for himself.

When his business slowed down after the War of 1812, Cooper was quick to adapt. Instead of making machines to shear cloth, he began operating a furniture factory.

Cooper was always striving to build upon the things he’d already accomplished.

Much of his fortune was earned by the time he opened his Canton Iron Works. In that capacity, he built the first steam locomotive in the United States: the Tom Thumb. One observer at the time noted that this success “establishes the fact that steam-power may be used on our road with as much facility and effect as that of horses, at a very reduced expense.”

During the course of his life, Cooper had his finger in lots of pies—to say the least.

He owned a rolling mill and several foundries, including the largest blast furnace in America at the time. He was President of a telegraph company and contributed to the laying of the first transatlantic cable. He invented a machine that could shape wheel hubs. He patented a musical cradle, and he held a patent for the manufacture of gelatin. He devised a method of making salt.

 (1879 political cartoon)
A political cartoon shows Cooper spanking his son, the New York Mayor.

Perhaps one of his most lasting legacies was created when he founded the Cooper Union. Cooper believed that education was the gateway to future opportunity and prosperity. His institution offered free classes in science, engineering, and art, and it had a free public reading room. At the time, Cooper expressed his “ardent wish” that the school “may be the means of raising to competence and comfort thousands of those that might otherwise struggle through a life of poverty and suffering.”

Cooper himself was motivated by his own Christian faith, but he also specifically provided that his institution was to be available to a variety of religions. The Cooper Union also did not discriminate on the basis of gender or race. Cooper was an abolitionist, and the Great Hall at Cooper Union was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “right makes might” speech, given shortly before he became a presidential candidate.

As his school opened, Cooper expressed one other wish that will ring true with many of you reading this post:

“I desire,” he wrote, “by all that I can say and by all that I can do, to awaken in the minds of the rising generation an undying thirst for knowledge and virtue, in order that they may be able, by wise and honorable measures, to preserve the liberties we enjoy.”

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