Let our schools teach the nobility of labor and the beauty of human service, but the superstitions of ages past--never!
Peter Cooper was born in New York City in the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-one. He lived to be ninety-two years old, passing out in Eighteen Hundred Eighty-three.
He was, successively, laborer, clerk, mechanic, inventor, manufacturer, financier, teacher, philanthropist and philosopher.
If Robert Owen was the world's first modern merchant, Peter Cooper was America's first businessman. He seems to have been the first prominent man in the United States to abandon that legal wheeze, "Caveat emptor." In fact, he worked for the buyer, and considered the other man's interests before he did his own. He practised the Golden Rule and made it pay, while the most of us yet regard it as a kind of interesting experiment. I have said a few oblique things about city-bred boys and city people in general, but I feel like apologizing for them and doing penance when I think of restless, tireless, eager, brave, honest and manly Peter Cooper.
When that New York City woman, last week, observing a beautiful brass model of an Oliver Plow on my mantel, asked me, "What is this musical instrument?" she proved herself not of the Peter Cooper tribe. She was the other kind--the kind that seeing the pollywogs remarks, "Oh, how lovely--they will all be butterflies next week!" Or, "Which cow is it that gives the butter-milk?" a question that once made Nathan Straus walk on his hands.
Although Peter Cooper was born in New York City and had a home there most of his life, he loved the country, and for many years made Sunday sacred for the woods and fields. Yet as a matter of strictest truth let it be stated that, although Peter Cooper was born in New York City, when he was two years old, like Bill Nye, he persuaded his parents to move. The family gravitated to the then little village of Peekskill, and here the lad lived until he was seventeen years old.
Next to Benjamin Franklin, Peter Cooper was our all-round educated American. His perfect health--living to a great age--with sanity and happiness as his portion, proves him to be one who knew the laws of health and also had the will to obey them. He never "retired from business"--if he quit one kind of work it was to take up something more difficult.
He was in the fight to the day of his death; and always he carried the flag further to the front.
He was a Freethinker at a time when to have thoughts of your own was to be an outcast. His restless mind was no more satisfied with an outworn theology than with an outgrown system of transportation. His religion was blended with his work and fused with his life.
He built the first railway-locomotive in America, and was its engineer until he taught others how. He rolled the first iron rails for railroads. He made the first iron beams for use in constructing fireproof buildings. He was the near and dear friend and adviser of Cyrus W. Field, and lent his inventive skill, his genius and his money, to the laying of the Atlantic Cable; and was the President of the Atlantic Cable Company for eighteen years.
In building and endowing Cooper Union, he outlined a system of education so beneficent that it attracted the attention of the thinking men of the world. And it is even now serving as a model upon which our entire public-school system will yet be founded--a system that works not for culture, for bric-a-brac purposes, but for character and competence. A what-not education may be impressive, but is worthless as collateral. The achievements of Peter Cooper make the average successful man look like a pigmy.
What the world needs is a few more Peter Coopers--rich men who do not absolve themselves by drawing checks for charity, but who give their lives for human betterment.
Let us catch up with Peter Cooper.
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John Cooper, the father of Peter Cooper, was of English stock. He was twenty-one years old in that most unforgetable year, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six. At the first call to arms, he enlisted as a minuteman. He fought valiantly through the war, in the field, and in the fortifications surrounding New York City, and came out of Freedom's fight penniless, but with one valuable possession--a wife.
In Seventeen Hundred Seventy-nine, he married the daughter of General John Campbell, his commander, who was then stationed at West Point. It was an outrageous thing for a sergeant to do, and I am sorry to say it was absolutely without orders or parental permission. The bride called it a Cooper union.
The Campbells, very properly, were Scotch, and the Scotch have a bad habit of thinking themselves a trifle better than the English. Like the Irish, they regard an Englishman with suspicion. The Scotch swear that they have never been conquered, certainly not by J. Bull, who has always been quite willing to give them anything they ask for.
At the time of his marriage, Sergeant Cooper was engaged in the laudable business of looking after General Campbell's horses, and also, let it be known, of making garden for the Campbell family.
In his garden work, John Cooper was under the immediate orders of Margaret Campbell. After hours, the Sergeant used to play a piccolo, and among other tuneful lays he piped one called "The Campbells Are Coming." It was on one such musical occasion that the young couple simply walked off and got married, thus proving a point which I have long held, to wit: Music is a secondary love manifestation.
On being informed of the facts, General Campbell promptly ordered that Sergeant John Cooper be shot. Before the execution could take place, the sentence was commuted to thirty days in the guardhouse. After serving one day, the culprit was pardoned on petition of his wife.
In a month he was made a captain, and later a lieutenant. The business of a soldier is not apt to be of a kind to develop his mental resources. Soldiers fight under orders; and initiative, production and economy are mere abstractions to your man of the sword.
Suffice it to say that in the war, John Cooper lost the ability to become a civilian of the first rank. He was industrious but improvident; he made money and he lost it. He had a habit of abandoning good inventions for worse ones. The ability to eliminate is good, but in sifting ideas let us cleave to those that are workable, until Fate proves there is something really better.
Peter Cooper was the fifth child in a family of nine. Bees know the secret of sex, but man does not. Peter Cooper's mother thought that her fifth child was to be a girl, but it was not until after the boy had grown to be a man and was proving his prowess, that his parents remembered why they had called him Peter, and said, "On this rock shall our family be built."
To be born of parents who do not know how to get on, and be one of a big family, is a great blessing. We are taught by antithesis quite as much as by injunction and direction. And chiefest of all we are taught through struggle, and not through immunity in that vacuum called complete success.
Peter Cooper's childhood was one of toil and ceaseless endeavor. Just one year did he go to school, just one year in all his life, and then for only half a day at a time. His short ration of books made him anxious to know, anxious to learn, and so his disadvantages gave him a thing which college often fails to bestow--that is, the Study Habit. And the reason he got it was because he wanted to go to school and could not. Happy Peter Cooper!
And yet he never really knew that many a youth is sent to school and dinged at by pedagogues until examinations become a nightmare, and college a penalty. Thus it happens that many a college graduate is so rejoiced on getting through and standing "on the threshold," that he never looks in a book afterward. Of such a one we can very properly say, "He got his education in college"--when all the world knows that the education that really amounts to anything is that which we get out of Life.
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The climbing propensities of Peter Cooper were made manifest very early in life. Later, they developed into a habit; and shifting ground from the physical to the psychic, he continued to climb all his life.
Also he made others climb, for no man climbeth by himself alone. At twelve, Peter Cooper proudly walked the ridgepole of the family residence, to the great astonishment and admiration of the little girls and the jealousy of the boys. When the children would run in breathlessly and announce to the busy mother, "Peter, he is on the house!" the mother would reply, "Then he will not get drowned in the Hudson River!" At other times it was, "Peter, he is swimming across the river!" The mother then found solace in the thought that the boy was not in immediate danger of sliding off the house and breaking his neck. Once, little Peter climbed a lofty elm to get a hanging bird's-nest that was built far out on a high projecting limb. He reached the nest all right, but his diagnosis was not correct, for it proved to be a hornets' nest, beyond dispute.
To escape the wrath of the hornets, Peter descended the tree "overhand," which being interpreted means that he dropped and caught the limbs as he went down so as to decrease the speed. The last drop was about thirty feet. The fall didn't hurt, but the sudden stop broke his collar-bone, knocked out three teeth, and cut a scar on his chin that lasted him all of his days.
Life is a dangerous business--few get out of it alive. Life consists in betting on your power to do--to achieve--to accomplish--to climb--to become. If you mistake hornets for birds, you pay the penalty for your error, as you pay for all mistakes. The only men who do things are those who dare.
Safety can be secured by doing nothing, saying nothing, being nothing. Here's to those who dare!
Because a thing had never been done before was to Peter Cooper no reason why it should not be done now. And although he innocently stirred up a few hornets' nests, he became a good judge of both birds and hornets through personal experience. That is the advantage of making mistakes. But wisdom lies in not responding to encores.
Peter Cooper's body was marked by the falls, mauls, hauls, and scars of burns and explosions. Surely if God does not look us over for medals and diplomas, but for scars, then Peter Cooper fulfilled the requirements.
When seventeen years old, he went down to New York and apprenticed himself to a coachmaker, Woodward by name. He was to get his board, washing and mending, and twenty-five dollars a year. It was a four-year contract--selling himself into service and servitude. The first two years he saved twenty dollars out of his wages. The third year his employer voluntarily paid him fifty dollars; and the fourth year seventy-five. In short, the young man had mastered the trade.
Woodward's shop was at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, which was then the northern limit of the city. Just beyond this was a big garden, worked by a prosperous and enterprising Irishman who supplied vegetables to ship-captains. This garden later was transformed into City Hall Park, and here the city buildings were erected, the finest in America for their purpose. The Irish still command the place.
New York City then had less than forty thousand inhabitants. Peter Cooper was to see the city grow to two million. For seventy-one years after his majority he was to take an active and intelligent interest in its evolution, tinting its best thought and hopes with his own aspiration.
The building of coaches then was a great trade. It was stagecoach times, and a good coach was worth anywhere from three hundred to a thousand dollars. The work was done by small concerns, where the proprietors and their 'prentices would turn out three or four vehicles a year. To build the finest coaches in the world was the ambition of Peter Cooper.
But to get a little needed capital he hired out to a manufacturer of woolen cloth at Hempstead, Long Island, for a dollar and a half a day. A dollar a day was good wages then, but Cooper had inventive skill in working with machinery. He had already invented and patented a machine for mortising the hubs of wagon-wheels. Now he perfected a machine for finishing woolen cloth. As the invention was made on the time of, and in the mill where he worked, he was given only a one-third interest in it.
He went on a visit to his old home at Peekskill and there met Matthew Vassar, who was to send the name of Vassar down the corridors of time, not as that of a weaver of wool and the owner of a very good brewery, but as the founder of a school for girls, or as it is somewhat anomalously called, "a female seminary."
Peter Cooper sold the county-right of his patent to Matthew Vassar for five hundred dollars. It was more money than the father had ever seen at one time in all his life.
The War of Eighteen Hundred Twelve was on, and woolen cloth was in great demand, the supply from England having been shut off.
Opportunity and Peter Cooper met, or is the man himself Opportunity?
The ratio of marriages, we are told, keeps pace with the price of corn. On the strength of his five hundred dollars, Peter Cooper embarked on the sea of matrimony, as the village editors express it. When Peter Cooper married Sarah Bedell, it was a fortunate thing for the world. Peter Cooper was a Commonsense Man, which is really better than to be a genius. A Commonsense Man is one who does nothing to make people think he is different from what he is. He is one who would rather be than seem! But a Commonsense Man needs a Commonsense Woman to help him live a Commonsense Life. Mrs. Cooper was a Commonsense Woman. She was of Huguenot parentage.
Persecution had given the Huguenots a sternness of mental and moral fiber, just as it had blessed and benefited the Puritans. The habit of independent thought got into the veins of these Huguenots, and they played important parts in the War of the Revolution. Like the Jews, they made good Freethinkers. They reason things out without an idolatrous regard for precedent.
For fifty-seven years Peter and Sarah fought the battle of life together. He clarified his thought by explaining his plans to her, and together they grew rich--rich in money, rich in knowledge, rich in experience, rich in love.
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There are men who are not content to put all their eggs into one basket, and then watch the basket.
Peter Cooper craved the excitement of adventure. His nature demanded new schemes, new plans, new methods upon which to break the impulse of his mind. The trade-wind of his genius did not blow constantly from one direction. Had he been content to focus on coach-building, he could have become rich beyond the dream of avarice. As it was, the fact that he could build as good a coach as any one else satisfied that quarter-section of his nature.
When the war of Eighteen Hundred Twelve closed, there was a great shrinkage in wool. Peter Cooper sold his holdings for a grocery-store, which he ran just long enough to restock and sell to a man who wanted it more than he did.
Then he started a furniture-factory, for he was an expert worker in wood. But the bench for him was only by-play. As he worked, his mind roamed the world.
He used glue in making the furniture. He bought his glue from a man who had a little factory on the site of what is now the Park Avenue Hotel. The man who made the glue did not like the business. He wanted to make furniture, just as comedians always want to play Hamlet. Peter Cooper's furniture-shop was in a rented building. The glue-man owned his site. Peter Cooper traded his furniture-shop for the glue-factory, and got a deed to the premises.
He was then thirty-three years old. The glue-factory was the foundation of his fortune. He made better glue and more glue than any other concern in America. Few men of brains would get stuck on the glue business. There are features about it not exactly pleasant. The very difficulties of it, however, attracted Cooper. He never referred to his glue-factory as a chemical laboratory, nor did he call it a studio. He was proud of his business. He made the first isinglass manufactured in America, and for some years monopolized the trade.
But one business was not enough for Peter Cooper. Attached to the glue-factory was a machine-shop which was the scene of many inventions. Here in Eighteen Hundred Twenty-seven and Eighteen Hundred Twenty-eight, Peter Cooper worked out and made a steam-engine which he felt sure was an improvement on the one that Watt had made in England.
Peter Cooper's particular device was a plan to do away with the crank, and transform the rectilinear motion of the piston into rotary motion. He figured it out that this would save two-fifths of the steam, and so stated in his application for a patent, a copy of which is before the writer.
The Patent Office then was looked after by the President in person. Peter Cooper's patent was signed by John Quincy Adams, President, Henry Clay, Secretary of State, and William Wirt, Attorney General. The patent was good for fourteen years, so any one who cares to infringe on it can do so now without penalty.
There were then no trained patent-examiners, and the President and Secretary of State were not inclined to hamper inventors with technicalities. You paid your fee, the patent was granted, and all questions of priority were left to be fought out in the courts. More patents have been granted to one individual--say, Thomas A. Edison--than were issued in America, all told, up to the time that Peter Cooper went down to Washington in person and explained his invention to John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, who evidently were very glad to sign the patent, rather than bother to understand the invention. In his application Peter Cooper states, "This invention is a suitable motor for hauling land-carriages."
It was one year before this that Stephenson in England had given an exhibition of his locomotive, the "Rocket," on a circular two-mile track in Manchester. Cooper had not seen the "Rocket," but Stephenson's example had fired his brain, and he had in his own mind hastened the system.
At this time he was thirty-six years old. His glue business was prosperous. Several thousand dollars of his surplus he had invested in charcoal-kilns near Baltimore. From this he had gone into a land speculation in the suburbs of that city. His partners had abandoned the enterprise and left him to face the disgrace of failure.
Commerce was drifting away from Baltimore to Philadelphia and New York. The Erie Canal had been opened and it looked as if this would be the one route to the West--the Hudson River to Albany, thence by canal to Buffalo, and on by the Great Lakes to the land of promise.
Pennsylvania had a system of canals, partially in use, and the rest in building, which would open up a route to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. But engineers had looked the ground over, and given it as their opinion that Baltimore was hedged in by insurmountable difficulties. Prophecies were made that soon ships would cease to come to Baltimore at all. And under this lowering commercial sky, Peter Cooper saw his Baltimore investments fading away into the ether.
At this time the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad was in operation. The coaches and wagons were simply those in use on the roads, but with new tires that carried a flange to keep the wheel on the rail. It was found that a team of horses could draw double the load on a railroad that they could if the wheels of the vehicle were on the ground.
The news was brought to America. Wooden rails were first tried, and then these were strengthened by nailing strap iron along the top. It was a great idea--build a railroad from Baltimore to the Ohio River, and thus compete with the Pennsylvania canals to the Ohio!
In Eighteen Hundred Twenty-seven the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company was formed. It was the first railroad company in America. Peter Cooper bought shares to the extent of his ability. It was a life-and-death struggle. If the railroad was a success, Baltimore was saved, and Peter Cooper was a rich man; otherwise he was a bankrupt. Stephenson's "Rocket" in England was pulling three or four carriages at a speed of ten miles an hour, while a team of horses on the same track could pull only one carriage at the rate of six or seven miles an hour.
The City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland were empowered to buy shares in the new transportation company. Thus we find government ownership of the first American railroad. The Mayor of the City and the Governor of the State had heard of Peter Cooper's engine, which he said could be used for "land-carriages," and they now importuned him to come to their rescue.
Robert Fulton had already proved that the steamship was practicable; but Fulton wasn't interested in railroads. He maintained, as did almost every one else, that the water-route was the only safe and sure and economical way of transportation. When the railroad was built from Albany to Schenectady the first idea was to have the engine tow canal-boats. Peter Cooper heard the wail of the Baltimoreans, and said, "I'll knock an engine together in six weeks that will pull carriages ten miles an hour and beat any canal-boat that ever collected barnacles."
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Peter Cooper went back from Baltimore to New York with a few misgivings as to whether he had not promised too much.
The real fact was he had gotten a patent on his engine before he had put it to an actual test. He had made the engine, but now he must make a boiler in which to generate the steam to make the wheels go round. This boiler he made and riveted with his own hands. It stood upright and was as high as his shoulder. It had a furnace beneath. It contained no tubes, and the proposition was to fill it half-full of water and then boil this water.
It took three weeks to make the boiler. It was about as big as the tank in an average kitchen-range. There were no water-gauges or steam-gauges. The engineer had to guess as to the pressure he was carrying.
When the boiler was complete, the great difficulty was how to carry the steam from the boiler to the engine. There were no wrought-iron pipes then made or sold in America. Cooper took a couple of muskets and used the barrels for pipes to connect his boiler and engine. These were duly soldered into place. The engine and boiler were then placed on a small, flat-top wagon and bolted down. The engine had a wheel which projected over the side, and an endless chain was run over the projecting hub of the wagon.
Peter experimented and found that the water in the boiler would last one hour; then the fire would have to be drawn, and the boiler cooled and refilled. He tried the engine and it worked, but there was no railroad upon which to try the wagon until the machine was taken down to Baltimore. A team was hitched to the wagon, and the drive was made to Baltimore in three days.
Peter placed his wagon with its flange-wheels on the track and pushed it up and down along the rail. It fitted the track all right. He then went back to his hotel with the two boys who were helping him. After the boys were abed, he sneaked off in the darkness, filled up his boiler, screwed down the top, and fired up. It was a moment of intense excitement. He turned on the steam--the wheels revolved--then the thing stuck. He had a pike-pole and using this pushed himself along for a few rods. The endless chain was working, and the machine was going--flying--almost as fast as a man could run. And Peter ran the machine back into the barn, went home and went to bed. He had succeeded. The next day he invited the President of the road and the Mayor of the City to ride with him.
The machine had to be poled or pushed to start it, but it proved the principle. The following day a public exhibition was given. Forty men and one woman responded to the request for volunteers to ride. They rode on the engine and in a big coach attached behind. They covered the top of the coach and clung to the sides. A dozen men got hold and gave a good push and they were off.
The road was just thirteen miles long. The distance was made in one hour and twelve minutes. The fire was then drawn and the boiler refilled. Also, all the passengers refilled, for whisky flowed free.
Peter Cooper was ready to start back. He ordered every man to hold on to his hat. A push and a pull, all together, and they were off. They ran the thirteen miles back in just fifty-eight minutes. The engine was a success beyond the fondest hopes of Peter. There were difficulties in the way, however. One was that the pulling only on one side caused a cramping of the flange on the other side against the rail. This was remedied by putting a wheel on both sides and running a chain on the two projecting hubs.
The pulling by hand to start was also criticized. Next, the fact that the engine had to be shut down every hour for water was noted. Peter Cooper stopped the mouths of the carpers by calling attention to the fact that even a horse had to be watered. And as for giving a push on starting, it was a passenger's duty to collaborate with the engineer. Besides that, passengers get thirsty and hungry as well as horses, and want a little change. Peter Cooper assured the critics that the boiler could be refilled while a man was getting a drink and stretching his legs.
The people who owned the stagecoach-line that ran parallel with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad made a lot of fun of Peter Cooper's teakettle. On one occasion they loosened a rail, so the thing ran into the ditch. For a time this sort of discouraged traffic, but there were others who prophesied that in a few years horses could not be given away.
Finally, the owner of the stagecoach-line challenged the railroad folks to race from Riley's Tavern to Baltimore, a distance of nine miles. The race was between a noted gray horse, famed for speed and endurance, and the teakettle. The road ran right alongside of the wagon route. In truth, it took up a part of the roadway, which was one cause of opposition. The race occurred on September Eighteenth, Eighteen Hundred Thirty. Thousands of dollars were bet, and a throng of people lined the route from start to finish. The engine pulled but one coach, and had one passenger. The gray horse was hitched to a buggy that carried one man besides the driver.
The engine led for five miles, when the boiler sprang a leak and stopped, the engineer in his anxiety getting on too much pressure. The horse won, and this proved to many people a fact which they had suspected and foretold; namely, that the steam-engine for land-carriages was only a plaything. Farmers in that vicinity took heart and began again to turn their attention to raising horses.
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In the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-one, when Peter Cooper was forty years old, he was worth fifty thousand dollars; when he was forty-five, he was worth a hundred thousand dollars; when he was fifty, he was worth more than two hundred thousand dollars. He was one of the richest men of New York, and he was a man of influence. Had he centered on money-making, he might have become the richest man in America.
He held political office that he might serve the people, not that he might serve a party or himself. In all deliberative bodies, the actual work is done by a few. A dozen men or less run Congress.
For forty years Peter Cooper served the City of New York and the State, and always to his own financial loss. He saw the last remains of the Indian Stockade removed from Manhattan Island. When he was elected alderman, the city was patrolled by night-watchmen, who made their rounds and cried the hour and "All's Well!" For five hours, from midnight until five o'clock in the morning, they walked and watched. They were paid a dollar a night, and the money was collected from the people who owned property on the streets they patrolled, just as in country towns they sprinkle the streets in front of the residences owned by the men who subscribe.
Peter Cooper inaugurated a system of "public safety," or police protection. He also replaced the old volunteer fire-department with a paid service. He was the first man to protest against the use of wells as a water-supply for a growing city.
The first water-pipes used in New York City were bored logs; he fought against these, and finally induced the city to use iron pipes. As there was no iron pipe at this time made in America, he inaugurated a company to cast pipe. Very naturally his motives in demanding iron pipes were assailed, but he stood his ground and made the pipes and sold them to the city rather than that the city should not have them. He was brave enough to place himself in a suspicious position, that the people might prosper.
In Eighteen Hundred Thirty, he organized "The Free School Society," to fight the division of the school funds among sectarian schools. The idea that any form of religion should be taught at public expense was abhorrent to him. He was denounced as an infidel and an enemy of society, but his purity of life and unselfish devotion to what he knew was right were his shield and defense. The fight was kept up from Eighteen Hundred Thirty to Eighteen Hundred Fifty-three, when it was fixed in the statute that "no fund raised by taxation should be provided or used for the support of any school in which any religious or sectarian doctrine or tenet is taught, inculcated or practised." The Free School Society was then fused with the School Board, and ceased to exist as a separate institution. That the amalgamation was a plan to shelve Peter Cooper's secular ideas dawned upon him later. And that the struggle for a school free from superstition's taint was not completely won, Peter Cooper fully realized.
During this long service on the School Board of New York City, Peter Cooper worked out in his own mind an ideal of education which he was unable to impress upon his fellow townsmen. No doubt their indifference and opposition tended to crystallize his own ideas.
It will not do to say that Peter Cooper was exactly disgusted with the public-school system of New York, for he, more than any other one man, had evolved it and carried it forward from very meager beginnings. Democracy is a safeguard against tyranny, but it often cramps and hinders the man of genuine initiative. If the entire public-school system of the State had been delegated to Peter Cooper in Eighteen Hundred Fifty, he as sole commissioner could and would have set the world a pace in pedagogy.
Disraeli's contention that democracy means the rule of the worst has in it a basis of truth. Peter Cooper's appeals to his colleagues on the School Board fell on idle ears. And so he decided to do the thing himself, and the extent to which he would do it was to be limited only by his fortune.
Cooper Union was to be a model for every public school in America.
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The block bounded by Third and Fourth Avenues and the Bowery was bought up by Peter Cooper, a lot at a time, with the idea of a model school in mind. When Peter Cooper bought the first lot there in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-six, the site was at the extreme north limit of the city. Later, A. T. Stewart was to build his business palace near at hand.
Cooper offered his block of land to the city, gratis, provided a school would be built according to his plans. His offer was smilingly pigeonholed.
In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-four, when Peter Cooper was sixty-one years old, he began the building of his model school on his own account.
His business affairs had prospered, and besides the glue-factory he was making railroad-iron at Ringwood, New Jersey, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. These mills were very crude according to our present-day standards. But Peter Cooper believed the consumption of iron would increase. Bridges were then built almost entirely of wood. Peter Cooper built his bridges of rolled iron "boards," as they were first called, riveted together. But he found it difficult to compete with the wooden structures.
When he began building Cooper Union, he found himself with a big stock of bridge-iron on hand for which there was no market. The excavations were already made for the foundations, when the idea came to Peter Cooper that he could utilize this bridge-iron in his school-building and thus get an absolutely fireproof structure. The ability of Peter Cooper to adapt himself to new conditions, turning failure into success, is here well illustrated.
Not until he had accumulated an overstock of bridge-iron did he think of using iron for the frames of buildings. It was the first structural use of iron to re-enforce stone and brick, in America.
Cooper Union was nearly five years in building. A financial panic had set in, and business was at a stand-still. But Peter did not cheapen his plan, and the idea of abandoning it never occurred to him.
The land and the building cost him six hundred thirty thousand dollars and came near throwing him into bankruptcy. But business revived and he pulled through, to the loss of reputation of many good men who had persistently prophesied failure. Be it said to the credit of his family that the household, too, partook of the dream and lent their aid.
Altogether, the assets of Cooper Union are now above two million dollars.
The ideal man in the mind of Peter Cooper was Benjamin Franklin. He wanted to help the apprentice--the poor boy. He saw many young men dissipating their energies at saloons and other unprofitable places. If he could provide a place where these young men could find entertainment and opportunity to improve their minds, it would be a great gain. Peter Cooper thought that we are educated through the sense of curiosity quite as much as in reading books. So Cooper Union provided a museum of waxworks and many strange, natural-history specimens. There was also an art-gallery, a collection of maps and statuary; and a lecture-hall was placed in the basement of the building. Peter Cooper had once seen a panic occur in a hall located on a second story and the people fell over one another in a mass on the stairway. He said a panic was not likely to occur going upstairs. This hall is a beautiful and effective assembly-room, even yet. It seats nineteen hundred people, and the audience so surrounds the speaker that it does not impress one as being the vast auditorium which it is.
Cooper Union has always been the home of free speech. Next to Faneuil Hall it is the most distinguished auditorium in America, from a historic standpoint.
William Cullen Bryant, Edward Everett, Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, and every great speaker of the time, spoke here. Victoria Woodhull brought much scandal on the devoted head of Peter Cooper when he allowed her to use the platform to ventilate her peculiar views. Peter Cooper met the criticism by inviting her to come back and speak again. She did so, being introduced by Theodore Tilton. Here came Lincoln, the gaunt and homely, and spoke before he was elected President. His "Cooper Union Speech" is a memorable document, although it was given without notes and afterwards written out by Lincoln, who seemed surprised that any one should care to read it.
The speech given in Cooper Union by Robert G. Ingersoll lifted him from the rank of a Western lawyer to national prominence in a single day. Other men had criticized the Christian religion, but no man of power on a public platform had up to that time in America expressed his abhorrence and contempt for it. The reputation of Ingersoll had preceded him. He had given his lecture in Peoria, then in Chicago, and now he made bold to ask Peter Cooper for permission to use the historic hall. Cooper responded with eagerness. There was talk of a mob when the papers announced an "infidel speech."
The auspicious night came, and Peter Cooper himself introduced the speaker. He sat on the platform during the address, at times applauding vigorously. It was an epoch, but then Peter Cooper was an epoch-making man. Cooper Union is now conducted along the identical lines laid out by its founder.
It is a Free University, dedicated to the People. It has a yearly enrolment of over thirty-five hundred pupils. Only three Universities in America surpass it in numbers. Its courses are designed to cover the needs of practical, busy people. Art, architecture, engineering, business and chemistry are its principal features. Its fine reading-room and library have a yearly attendance of a million visitors. The great hall is used almost every night in the year. And just remember that this has continued for fifty years.
When the building was put up, there were no passenger-elevators in New York, or elsewhere. Peter Cooper's mechanical mind saw that higher buildings would demand mechanical lifts, and so he provided a special elevator-shaft. He saw his prophecy come true, and there is now an elevator in the place he provided. The demand now upon the building overtaxes its capacity.
The influx of foreign population in New York City makes the needs of Cooper Union even more imperative than they were fifty years ago. So additional buildings are now under way, and with increased funds from various worthy and noble people, Cooper Union is taking a new lease of life and usefulness. And into all the work there goes the unselfish devotion, the patience and the untiring spirit of Peter Cooper, apprentice, mechanic, inventor, businessman, financier, philosopher and friend of humanity.