Magazine article Humanities

Peter Cooper's Big Ideas

Magazine article Humanities

Peter Cooper's Big Ideas

Article excerpt

"I had naturally a AnacAtor contriving.

IN 1830, PETER COOPER DESIGNED, BUILT, and drove the first steam-powered locomotive to operate a public railroad in the United States - a feat of engineering that helped ensure the future success of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In 1845, he patented a "condensed" gelatin food product that later became the ubiquitous JeIl-O brand fruit dessert. In 1852, he challenged workers at his Trenton Iron Company to come up with a new kind of structural beam that could be used in largescale construction projects. Beams produced at his ironworks soon found their way into the Assay Offices in New York, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. And in 1858, as an honorary director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, he was instrumental to the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph line.

Even this drastically abbreviated list suggests a far more penetrating faculty than a mere "knack for contriving." Born in 1791 to a poor family in New York City, Cooper by dint of his unflagging industry, intellect, and, he would have said, faith, made a fortune as a glue-maker. He then went on to become one of the important shapers of what might be called American modernity. He touched, and in some cases radically transformed, so many facets of the contemporary milieu - travel, monetary policy, communications, architecture that it would seem all but impossible to pin down his single greatest contribution to the era. But when in 1882, at the age of ninety-one, Cooper sat down with a stenographer to dictate his autobiography, it was the small school he had founded in his hometown that seemed to him his greatest achievement.

"In reviewing the whole course of my life," he said, "the money that I expended in building the institute ... I look back upon as one of the best treasures that I have been able to lay up for old age, and which I hope to reflect on with pleasure when I pass into a brighter and better world."

When the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art first opened its doors in 1859, it represented for Cooper the realization and commencement of an idea that had occupied perhaps even preoccupied - his imagination for nearly thirty years. In the early 1830s, he had listened with interest to a friend, one Dr. Rogers, recount his recent experiences at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. Of everything Rogers told him - about the school's professors, curriculum, and scientific apparatus- Cooper was most impressed by the character of the students, who, he was told, pursued their coursework admirably despite subsisting on nothing but "a bare crust of bread a day." The story of these young men (the École did not admit women until 1972), impoverished, hungry, and yet wholly dedicated to their studies, touched a chord with Cooper: His own formal education had consisted of only "some three or four quarters" at a public school during his childhood, and though he had wanted to pursue scientific training in later life, he found that "there were no night schools or laboratories nor any means by which an apprentice boy could get information."

Cooper became convinced that there were any number of would-be engineers, architects, artists, and inventors among the working classes of New York who, if given the chance, "would gladly turn away from vitiating pursuits to enjoy the beauties and benefits of a course of scientific instruction."

"I formed a very resolute determination," Cooper later said, "that if I could ever get the means, I would build an institution and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city, who had had no better opportunity than G had to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition, fitting them for all the various and useful purposes of life."

But here, of course, philanthropic impulses outstripped practical experience. Having never received a full course of academic instruction himself, Cooper had little idea how best to go about educating others. …

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