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Peter Cooper was an American manufacturer and inventor who conceived and constructed the nation’s first steam locomotive. In Manhattan, New York City, he also founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. As a multifaceted individual, he also stood for president in 1876 as a Greenback Party candidate. Cooper, the son of a Revolutionary War commander, worked as an apprentice coachmaker, cabinetmaker, hatmaker, brewer, and grocer during his youth. Exposure to a variety of trades afforded him vital experiences that would later aid him in his career as an industrialist. Bright and inquisitive, he enjoyed tinkering and designing new devices. His earliest innovations included a cloth-shearing machine and an unending chain. He began a business selling his cloth-shearing machines, but it was not very profitable. Soon after, he began manufacturing glue and established himself as a rich businessman. A few years later, he discovered iron ore on his land and established the Canton Iron Works. This established the groundwork for his crowning achievement, the design, and construction of the Tom Thumb steam locomotive, for which he received worldwide recognition. Cooper had a keen interest in adult education and established the Manhattan-based Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which offered classes to both men and women.

Youth and Early Life

Peter Cooper was born in New York City, New York, on February 12, 1791, as the fifth child of John Cooper, a Methodist hatmaker, and Margaret Campbell, his wife. His ancestry included Dutch, English, and Huguenot.

He received little formal education and spent much of his childhood working in various industrial settings alongside his father. Early in the 19th century, practical talents were seen as more significant than academic credentials.

As a teenager, he mastered numerous skills, including hatmaking, brewing, and brickmaking. He was a rapid student with an insatiable need for knowledge.

At the age of 17, he served as an apprentice to a coachmaker in New York City. He demonstrated a strong work ethic and tremendously impressed his teacher. At the conclusion of his apprenticeship, he was awarded a loan to pursue coach-making independently. Peter, though, was also interested in acquiring expertise in other trades.

Peter Cooper’s Career

Peter Cooper was interested in entrepreneurship from a young age, and after completing his apprenticeship as a coachmaker, he began producing and marketing cloth-shearing machines he had devised.

In 1812, his firm prospered well throughout the Second War of Independence. However, once the war was finished, the earnings began to decline. To remain in business, he transformed his facilities into furniture manufacturing, which he finally sold.

In 1821, after dabbling in a few other companies, he purchased a glue factory on Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay for $2,000. There were a number of nearby slaughterhouses from which he could easily obtain raw materials for the production of glue and associated goods such as gelatin and isinglass.

He became a prosperous industrialist and significantly grew his firm. Soon, his clientele expanded to include the city’s largest tanners, paint producers, and dealers of dry goods. In 1828, he passed ownership of the firm to his son and son-in-law so that he might pursue new opportunities.

In 1828, Cooper purchased three thousand acres of land in Maryland and began to develop it. On discovering iron ore on his property, he concluded that he could establish a thriving business from it. He established the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore to provide the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with ore for the production of iron rails.

Cooper began creating a compact but powerful engine when the railroad business encountered difficulties in developing a sufficient engine to tackle the high and winding roads. In 1830, he eventually succeeded in assembling for them the Tom Thumb steam locomotive that could pull 40 people at 10 miles per hour.

In New York, he began operating a rolling mill for iron in 1836. This mill was the first to effectively smelt iron using anthracite coal. Later, the mill was relocated to Trenton, New Jersey on the Delaware River, where it proved to be highly profitable.

In addition to real estate and insurance assets, he made a fortune from his enterprises and investments. As a tremendously successful investor, businessperson, and investor, he became one of New York City’s wealthiest men.

Cooper and four others established the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company in 1854 and the American Telegraph Company the following year. In 1858, he oversaw the installation of the first Transatlantic telegraph wire as a result of his association with the American Telegraph Company.

Prior to the Civil War, he was involved in both the anti-slavery movement and the Indian reform movement. Between 1870 and 1875, he sponsored Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., New York City, and other Eastern towns. He played a significant role in the 1869 creation of the Board of Indian Commissioners.

He joined the Greenback Party and was encouraged to compete for the presidency in 1876 with Samuel Fenton Cary as his running mate. At the time he was nominated, he was 85 years old. Rutherford Birchard Hayes of the Republican Party ultimately prevailed in the election.

Peter Cooper’s  Major Opera

Peter Cooper is most known for developing and constructing America’s first steam locomotive, the “Tom Thumb,” in 1801. It was a four-wheel locomotive with a vertical boiler and vertically mounted cylinders that powered one of the axles with an anthracite coal-powered engine.

Works for Charity

Cooper had a strong interest in adult education and devised the concept of a free institute in New York. In 1859, he spent $600,000 to build the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The college offered evening sessions to both men and women, establishing a precedent for advancing the education of women.

Cooper also established the Women’s School of Design, which provided daytime instruction in engraving, lithography, painting on porcelain, and sketching.

Personal History and Legacy

In 1813, Peter Cooper married Sarah Bedell. Only two of the couple’s six children reached adulthood. As adults, his son Edward and his daughter’s spouse Abram joined him in his business activities.
He lived a long life and died at the age of 92 on April 4, 1883.

Estimated Net Worth

Unknown.