Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Peter Cooper Story, 2: A Man Ahead of His Time


The Hudson River village of Peekskill, N.Y., gave Peter Cooper what little formal schooling he had. Now a city, Peekskill displays a plaque that claims him for longer than he actually was a resident. The plaque also offers faint praise, describing him merely as an "inventor, educator, philanthropist." Those three words only tell part of the Peter Cooper story. He was arguably the greatest technical pioneer and social reformer of 19th century America--no small feat for someone who lacked an education.

In his later years he liked to describe himself modestly as "a mechanic from New York." That he was. But he also perfected the making of glue in America, and his glue became a standard against which other glues were measured. He patented a process for making powdered gelatin--he called it "portable gelatin"--the product we know today as Jell-O. Builder of the first American-made locomotive to operate in this country, his Trenton, New Jersey, plant also rolled the first iron railroad rails made here. He investigated the Croton River as a source for city water, and designed and supervised the construction of the city's system of water mains.

Peter Cooper was an active partner with Cyrus W. Field in the successful laying of the Atlantic cable. Through his use of a wrought iron framework in the construction of his Cooper Union, he became the putative father of the modern skyscraper. This remarkable educational institution he founded has given a free education to students of superior intelligence for the past 148 years. In 1876, at the age of 85 and unhappy with the state of the country, he ran for president. When he died in 1883, New York City came to a standstill to honor him.

Business success was not enough for Peter Cooper. His goal in life was, as he expressed it, "to give the world an equivalent in some form of useful labor for all that I consumed in it." His willingness while he was still alive to donate a large portion of his personal fortune for the public good set the pattern for Andrew Carnegie, Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell, William Corcoran, George Peabody and other men of wealth to follow.

Up from Poverty
Despite his lack of formal education, in ten years young Peter Cooper went from carriage maker's apprentice at the age of 17 to machinist to cabinetmaker to grocer at 27. Hamilton Fish, a small boy when Cooper opened his store at Stuyvesant Street and the Bowery in New York City, remembered how neighborhood children loved the kindly grocer.

But the hours were long and his tinkering with inventions had been unsuccessful. "I was always fussing and contriving," he recalled later, "and was never satisfied unless I was doing something difficult--something that had never been done before, if possible." He invented a lawn mower but did not patent it, and a "Pendulous  Musical Cradle," mechanically rocked and fitted with "a musical instrument that would sing the child to sleep," with a cloth to "keep the flies off the little one."

Other inventions were to come. Among them, a rotary steam engine and an endless chain to haul canal boats. DeWitt Clinton paid Cooper $800 for the patent rights to the latter device, but local farmers, who supplied towboat horses, raised a fuss when he tried to install it on the Erie Canal.

Making Glue, Making Money
The nucleus of Peter Cooper's large fortune came from a commonplace product--glue. In 1821, he learned that a man named John Vreeland had a glue factory he wanted sell. Vreeland asked $2,200, but Cooper got it for $2,000 by paying cash. It was an opportune moment to enter the glue business. The country was just emerging from the financial panic of 1819 and was on the brink of an industrial expansion. In his first year he cleared $10,000--five times what he paid for the factory.

The panic had one bright side: To help finance the Erie Canal, canal backers devised the idea of a savings bank, with its capital solely made up of deposits of working people; it could invest only in government securities. The New York legislature chartered the Bank for Savings in 1819. Within five years it had 30,000 depositors and $1.5 million in assets and was the largest single holder of Erie Canal bonds. It was followed by the Seamen's Bank for Savings (1829), Greenwich Savings Bank (1833) and Bowery Savings Bank (1834).

Cooper's newly purchased factory was near Sunfish Pond at the southern edge of the hamlet of Kip's Bay, far enough from the city downtown to disturb no one. A small lake surrounded by fields of clover and giant buttonwood trees, the pond lay between what would be 31st and 32nd streets and extended from Lexington Avenue to Fourth Avenue, draining into the East River. Locals fished in it for eels and skated there in winter.

Two problems faced Cooper: getting raw material to make glue and mastering the technical problems of making a quality product. After the Bull's Head Tavern, a hangout of cattle drovers, moved from Chatham Square to 26th Street and Third Avenue, it was soon surrounded by cattle yards and slaughterhouses. Peter Cooper's glue factory was assured of a plentiful supply of cows' and calves' feet.

When he entered the glue business, most glue used in America was imported from Great Britain and France, despite high prices and a tariff of five cents a pound. Cooper learned how to control the steps of making and drying glue and produced it cheaply in ten uniform grades. He also produced companion products--isinglass and gelatin. Cooper's gelatin was sold in packages with his portrait prominently displayed and with recipes written by Mrs. Cooper. Cooper never promoted this product and rights to it were eventually sold.

To be close to his factory, Cooper bought lots at 28th Street and Fourth Avenue and built a house. Neither the street nor the avenue only existed on maps. The location of his property had to be found by searching for the markers placed at future street intersections under the 1811 grid plan. Surveyor John Randel and his crews had placed 1,549 three-foot-high numbered white marble stones at intersections. When rock outcrops interfered with setting these in place, iron bolts, 98 in all, were hammered in to mark the spot. The ambitious Commissioners' Plan, which stretched to eight feet in length on paper, created streets as far north as 155th Street and paid little attention to the existing topography.

Making glue was a profitable enterprise, but it is also dirty business. Peter Cooper became one of the city's first polluters. His glue factory so fouled little Sunfish Pond that in 1839 it had to be drained and filled. Cooper next bought land in the Brooklyn town of Bushwick and erected a new glue factory there. Four years after he moved his factory to Brooklyn, it burned to the ground. The story is told that Peter Cooper inspected the smoldering ruins and immediately headed for Wall Street to borrow the money to rebuild it. So respected was Cooper's word he needed no collateral. Returning home, he told his wife, "The lumber will be on the ground in the morning."

When noise from the nearby New York & Harlem Railroad depot at 27th Street became annoying, in 1850 he moved his residence to Lexington Avenue, at 22nd Street. To be able to pursue other interests, Cooper sold the glue business to his children in 1865. It was incorporated the following year as the Peter Cooper Glue Factory, with son Edward Cooper as president. In 1878, Edward Cooper was elected mayor of New York City. Although Peter wouldn't live to see it, his son-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt, who had married his daughter Amelia, later also would hold that office.

Because of residents' protests, the Cooper factory was moved again, this time to Smith Island in Newtown Creek, near Gardner and Maspeth avenues. The glue factory finally left Brooklyn in the 20th century for a site at Gowanda, New York, about 30 miles south of Buffalo, where it manufactured 25 million pounds of hide glue annually. Other plants were constructed in Chicago and Milwaukee to produce bone glue and gelatin. The company claimed to be largest glue manufacturer in the world. A portrait of Peter Cooper adorns its packages. Today the site of the abandoned Gowanda plant is on the EPA's cleanup list.

Tom Thumb
Alarmed by the threat posed by the Erie Canal to their commerce with the Midwest, in 1827 citizens of Baltimore pushed through the Maryland legislature a charter for America's first railroad--the Baltimore & Ohio. In 1828, two New Yorkers brought an attractive offer to Peter Cooper. He agreed to purchase 3,000 acres of land at Lazaretto Point in Baltimore, near the line of the projected railroad. The usually cautious Cooper paid $20,000 as his down payment before discovering that he had been swindled. His associates were living high on the hog on his money. Never one to give up in the face of adversity, he explored the property and discovered iron ore. Ever enterprising, he mined the ore, built furnaces and smelted it into pig iron.

In the meantime, the B&O was running into big trouble. To avoid making deep cuts through rocky outcrops, the line had been built with tight curves whose radius was only 150 feet. George Stephenson, the English locomotive builder, insisted that they could never negotiate curves that sharp. Discouraged, the directors of the B&O prepared to abandon the 13 miles of track already laid.

Cooper realized that abandonment would spell doom for his investment. "It would have been a terrible defeat for me," Cooper later wrote, "for I saw that the growth of the city of Baltimore depended on the success of that road, and I had purchased that tract with a view to taking advantage of the rapid growth of the city."

Cooper promised Philip E. Thomas, president of the B&O, that he "would put a small locomotive on" that could negotiate the line's tight curves. "I got up a little locomotive," as he characterized it--the celebrated "Tom Thumb," the first American-built locomotive to run on an American railroad. It featured a vertical boiler and a belt-driven blower to keep up a full head of steam, two more of Cooper's many inventions. In August of 1830, with a half-dozen men on the engine platform and three dozen in a carriage behind, Cooper drove his locomotive the 13 miles to Ellicott's Mills in 72 minutes and back in 57 minutes. B&O bonds sold quickly. Peter Cooper sold his land two years later at a handsome profit.

Water, Water, Everywhere
One of Peter Cooper's little-known accomplishments was his supervision of the construction of New York City's water distribution system as an alderman on the Common Council. For four decades, the city had been poorly supplied with water from springs and wells by Aaron Burr's Manhattan Company, but these sources had become contaminated and dangerous. Wealthy citizens imported casks of fresh water from lakes and streams in northern Manhattan and Westchester.

Various permanent sources of supply were investigated by the city: the Bronx River, the Rye Ponds (which were incorporated into the Kensico system in 1917), the Passaic River and the Croton River. After traveling to Philadelphia to inspect that city's reservoir that drew water from the Schuylkill River, Cooper's committee visited the Croton River to study the flow of water. Because it was closer to the city, the low, slow-moving Bronx River was attractive as a water source. Wiser heads eventually determined that the steep-walled valleys of the Croton River offered the larger volume necessary to meet the city's growing water needs.

John B. Jervis, chief engineer of the Croton aqueduct project, proposed bringing the water across the Harlem River on a "high bridge." Cooper advocated bringing the water into the city through a tunnel under the river so as not to hinder navigation. Jervis won that battle, and the bridge was begun. Bringing the water from the Croton River to the outskirts of the city was one challenge; distributing it to every street and avenue was another. Obviously, the primitive hollowed pine logs used by the Manhattan Company could not handle the large volume of Croton water. With the Croton Aqueduct nearing completion, a comprehensive system of pipes was needed.

By early 1840, less than one-fifth of some 160 miles of city water mains had been laid. Newly elected Alderman Peter Cooper took charge of the pipe-laying operation. He caused a furor among the iron founders of the city by awarding the piping contract to a "foreigner"--Philadelphia pipe manufacturer Stephen Colwell, who bid a quarter to a third less for the job. Colwell's bid was lower because he cast his pipes directly from the blast furnace, saving the cost of transporting the iron to another furnace and melting it.

Local iron founders appealed to Albany for support. Cooper trotted out a report of a government committee that had visited Europe and showed that in Sweden iron cast directly from the furnace was less brittle, freer from dross, and of more even texture and uniform thickness. Colwell got the contract, and Cooper supervised the pipe laying himself. By the time the aqueduct was completed, water mains bracketed every street and avenue south of 21st Street, the effective northern limits of the city.

"I made it my business, as fast as the pipes began to arrive," Cooper later wrote, "to be very particular that a process of testing the strength of each pipe should be made, to be sure that it was perfect. This was done by closing the ends of each pipe, and then bringing hydraulic pressure to bear, equal to 300 pounds to every square inch; thus no weak or imperfect pipe was allowed to pass into use." He also made sure that the hydrants the city bought could be easily drained of water "so that when wanted they would not be found frozen in winter."

On June 27, 1842, Croton water began to fill the 31-acre York Hill receiving reservoir in what would later become Central Park. One week later, the water began to rise in the imposing 45-foot-high Egyptian-style Murray Hill distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Drained in 1929, the Central Park reservoir's dry bed was occupied by squatters during the Depression, and then filled in to become the park's Great Lawn. It was replaced by the present much larger receiving reservoir to its north. The 42nd Street distributing reservoir was demolished in the 1890's to make way for the New York Public Library.

As no other New Yorker could, Peter Cooper looked with personal satisfaction at the two fountains in City Hall Park and Union Square spouting impressively tall jets of water. With a price tag of $12 million, completion of the Croton Aqueduct and the city's water distribution project was celebrated on October 14 with booming cannons and pealing church bells. An exuberant procession stretched seven miles through city streets destined to be forever cleaner by being flushed with Croton water.

The Remarkable Cooper Union
Throughout his life, Peter Cooper had been embarrassed by his lack of schooling, aware that he could not write a sentence without misspelling words or making mistakes in grammar or punctuation. In 1830, a fellow member of the Common Council had told him about the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. "What made the deepest impression on my mind," Cooper said later, "he found hundreds of young men from all parts of France living on a bare crust of bread to get the benefit of those lectures, I then thought how glad I should have been to have found such an institution when I was myself an apprentice." He added, "I determined to do what I could to secure to the youth of my native city and country the benefits of such an institution and throw its doors open at night so the boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I had to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition."

By 1852, Cooper had assembled parcels of land on Astor Place between Third and Fourth avenues for the building of what would become his pride and joy, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Peter Cooper and Mayor Jacob A. Westervelt, noted builder of clipper ships, laid the cornerstone the following year. "His Honor," The New York Times reported, "used the trowel as delicately as he would lift a pea on his silver fork. Mr. Cooper, on the other hand, handled the implement and laid on the mortar with as bold and workmanlike a hand as though he had been brought up to the business; indeed, as a bystander observed, he took to the mortar like a brick."

When Cooper Union was projected there were only three methods of constructing semi-fireproof structures: the Old World method of erecting heavy walls of stone; the cast-iron technique of James Bogardus, in which the entire framework was of cast iron. In the third method, builders were experimenting with the use of wrought iron, stronger, safer and more economical of space. Until Peter Cooper succeeded in adapting his T-shaped railroad rails into H-shaped beams, no one had rolled structural beams of sufficient length for large buildings. Each of Cooper Union's five stories had steel beams spanning the space between brick bearing walls, brick floor arches bridging from beam to beam and a facing of slabs of Connecticut brownstone. Three additional stories were added between 1880 and 1895.

Designed by architect Frederick A. Petersen (with Cooper at his elbow) in the Italianate style popular at the time, the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City calls the innovative Cooper Union building "a high-rise brownstone." Anticipating the invention of a practical elevator, Cooper left a circular shaft to house one; he believed the circle to be the most efficient use of space. The first two floors of the building were given over to retail shops, his way of making the building pay for itself. Because his Trenton rolling mill was busy making beams for the Harper Brothers building at Franklin Square, replacing one that had burned in a spectacular fire, Cooper's own building took six years to complete. Today, Cooper Union's Foundation Building is the oldest existing structure in America framed with steel beams.

Some New Yorkers viewed the institution with skepticism. "Cooper is very well meaning but very silly for a self-made millionaire. All his conceptions are amorphous, preposterous and impractical," lawyer George Templeton Strong told his diary. "He will produce nothing but $500,000 worth of folly." Opened in 1859, Cooper Union was to prove him wrong, satisfying an immense need from its very first day. "The scene was beyond belief," wrote Abram S. Hewitt, his son-in-law, acting as registrar. "There was a mob assembled so large and so eager that the efforts to register students almost resulted in a riot. It was incredible there should be such a passion for learning among the toilers. Every class was filled in one night, and from that day there never was a vacancy in the Cooper Union classes."

No one was denied admission "because of his or her religious tenets or opinions." Countering the educational prejudices of the day, Cooper insisted that women be admitted to classes with men. Six years after its opening, Abram S. Hewitt reported, "We have seen no evil results whatever resulting from the admission of young women to the same classes as men. On the contrary, we believe that both sexes are gainers by learning together." There was hardly a day--or evening--when Peter Cooper was not present at Cooper Union, fussily supervising every aspect of its operation.

Famous Names
Cooper Union's Great Hall became famous as a lecture venue. Seven presidential candidates spoke there, including Lincoln, whose famous antislavery "Right Makes Might" speech gained him the presidency. Grant, Cleveland, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt also spoke there before becoming president; only two incumbent presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, have appeared in the Great Hall. Henry Ward Beecher, William Cullen Bryant and William Lloyd Garrison thundered their abolitionist messages from its platform. At Cooper's urging, Sioux Indian chief Red Cloud, dressed in full regalia, made the case for Indian rights.

Suffragists were frequent speakers. When bluenoses publicly rebuked Cooper for allowing suffragist and free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull to speak, his response was to book her again. The names of those who have studied at Cooper Union reads like a Who's Who of science, architecture and art: Thomas Edison, physicist Michael Pupin, social reformer Jacob Riis, builder Irwin S. Chanin, graphic designers, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, painters Raphael Soyer and Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock, and sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adolph A. Weinman, Leo Friedlander and George Segal. Still a tuition-free school, Cooper Union is one of the most selective institutions of higher education in the United States. In a recent year, 2,179 freshman applications were received from all over the country; only 214 were admitted, an admission rate of 9.8%. Until 1859, there was no institution like Cooper Union in New York. There is still nothing like it today.

Greenback Party
In 1876, at the height of what would later be called "the Gilded Age," the country was in a mess. It had suffered through the second term of the scandalously lax administration of Republican Ulysses S. Grant. One of the most corrupt in history, almost everything was for sale. Robber-baron corporate executives shamelessly milked companies into bankruptcy. Unemployment rose. Farmers, burdened by mortgages on land and equipment, were beset by low prices for their produce. Legislators committed the government to aid corporations and the wealthy, while underpaid workers had to be content with the crumbs from capital's table.

During the Civil War, the government had issued greenbacks--notes not backed by gold. When the war ended, bankers and industrialists clamored for and got a reduction in the amount of cash available by the withdrawal of such "cheap" money. To counter the financial Panic of 1873 spurred by stringent controls on money and credit, Congress authorized an increase in the supply of greenbacks to $400 million. Grant promptly vetoed the measure. Fed up, Peter Cooper agreed to run as the standard-bearer of the Independent Greenback Party, with Samuel P. Cary of Ohio as his running mate. Considered a traitor to his class by his moneyed friends, the 85-year-old Cooper became the butt of the jokes of newspaper editorial writers and cartoonists. Running against Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, Cooper received only 80,000 votes--one percent of the votes cast. Undaunted, he returned to his beloved Cooper Union, which he had never really left during the campaign.

Final Years
To the public, Peter Cooper was a revered figure. In his Lexington Avenue house he placed his bedroom and study near the front door. When the doorbell rang, Peter Cooper was quick to answer. No supplicant left without a contribution of money and a bit of old-fashioned wisdom. He invariably tied his carriage to a lamppost, whether outside his home or Cooper Union. When his carriage was sighted on the streets, traffic stopped. One writer has suggested that this was because he was a notoriously bad driver. Men doffed their hats to the tall patriarch with his trademark ruff of white hair as he took his daily walk.

Late in March of 1883, a month after his 92nd birthday, he contracted a slight cold. He insisted on taking his regular walk and driving to his beloved Union. The cold worsened and pneumonia developed. Soon it became clear that he would not survive. He quietly gave final instructions to friends and family about business affairs and the future of his school.

He died Wednesday, April 4; his funeral took place Saturday, April 7, at All Souls' Unitarian Church, at Fourth Avenue and 20th Street, with the Reverend Robert Collyer officiating. His address was stirring, made especially memorable by his touching tribute to Peter Cooper's life of integrity. Standing before the opened coffin, he intoned, "Here lies a man who never owned a dollar he could not take up to the Great White Throne." After the ceremony, the coffin was placed in a horse-drawn hearse for its journey to the ferry for Brooklyn in the gentle April rain falling like tears upon the city. As the hearse and four carriages moved south down Fourth Avenue and Broadway, a strange thing happened. Slowly at first, individual spectators solemnly began to fall in behind the cortege.

Soon whole crowds of people spontaneously left the sidewalks and joined the procession until it was a vast river of silent humanity snaking its way through the streets of lower New York. At the ferry house, "amid the whistling of the ferry-boats and the rattling of the elevated trains," as The New York Herald reported, the funeral party boarded a ferry for the short trip to Brooklyn. He was interred in that city's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Here, among the graves of contemporaries DeWitt Clinton, Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, Samuel F.B. Morse, "Boss" Tweed and dancer Lola Montez, Peter Cooper sleeps the sleep of the just.

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The Story of Jell-O

In 1845, Peter Cooper received a patent for the preparation of "portable gelatin." He packaged the product as "clarified gelatin" but did not promote it. Fifty years later, Pearl B. Wait, a carpenter and cough medicine manufacturer of LeRoy, N.Y., bought the rights. His wife made a fruit-flavored version and named the product "Jell-O," which they were unsuccessful in selling. Neighbor Frank Woodward bought the rights to Jell-O for $450. Sales were so poor he offered to sell the business to his plant manager, but the offer was refused. Woodward sent out nattily dressed salesmen to demonstrate Jell-O preparation. Fifteen million copies of a Jell-O recipe book were distributed. By 1906, sales reached $1 million. Woodward's Genessee Pure Food Company was renamed the Jell-O Company in 1923 and later merged with Postum to become the General Foods Corporation.

(sidebar 2)

The Power of a Cooper Union Degree

In its glory years, New York's City College was called "the poor man's Harvard." Cooper Union could easily be described as "the poor man's and woman's M.I.T. Years ago, an attorney friend of this author, the late Chester Mueller, told a delightful story about the formidable power of a Cooper Union degree. He actually used the story to underscore the importance of a certain time-honored piece of advice to attorneys: Never ask a witness a question if you do not know what the answer will be.

It seems that Chester was involved in a lawsuit over the collapse of a building. A professional structural engineer was on the stand. Chester was grilling him on intricate details of the strength of the collapsed building's steel girders and beams, using technical terms like coefficient of stress, limits of torsion, opposing torques and similar technical terms. The unhappy witness grew more and more uncomfortable as Chester elicited a string of "I don't know" answers, only to have Chester supply the answer. Chester bore in harder and harder without referring to books or notes.

At this point, opposing counsel jumped up angrily and said, "Your Honor, I'd like to know what makes opposing counsel such an expert on all these technical aspects of building construction?" The judge turned to Chester and said, "A fair question, Mr. Mueller. How did you acquire this intimidating engineering expertise?"

"Your Honor, in addition to having a law degree, I am also a graduate of the School of Engineering at Cooper Union, Class of 1924." Mouth open, the lawyer who had asked the question sagged back into his chair with a sound like air escaping a punctured balloon. He threw his pencil on the table in exasperation. Chester cast a sidelong glance at the jury. They were obviously impressed and enjoying the swift turn of events. He returned to his relentless questioning of the hapless witness. After Chester's detailed summation itemizing the inherent engineering defects of the collapsed building, the jury quickly returned a unanimous verdict for Chester's client.

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