American inventor and manufacturer Peter Cooper (1791-1883) was considered New York City's "first citizen" because of his philanthropy and civic activities. He was a self-made millionaire, and his ideas of government were, for his time, politically radical.
Peter Cooper's father, John, was a craftsman whose restlessness and lack of success resulted in less than a year of formal education for his son, although the boy early became an accomplished mechanic. At 17 Cooper apprenticed himself to a New York City coach maker. Subsequently he was employed by a cloth-shearing factory, where he invented a new shearing device that became the basis for his first independent enterprise. He also bought a grocery store in New York. He married in 1813 and his wife, Sarah, baked the bread sold in the store. In 1827 he bought the glue factory which was the nucleus of his later fortune. Through experimentation he produced a product as good as that imported from Europe and gained a monopoly of the American market. Returns from the glue factory enabled him to participate in the iron and telegraph industries.
Cooper's capital backed the development of a large-scale iron industry centered by 1845 in New Jersey, the Trenton Iron Company, managed by his son-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt, and his son, Edward. Cooper was a dedicated supporter of Cyrus Field in the effort to lay the Atlantic cable, and he was an early sponsor and organizer of the telegraph industry. He was president of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company from 1854 to 1874 and, for shorter periods in the 1860s, of the American Telegraph Company and the North American Telegraph Association. His mechanical ingenuity, displayed in inventions as various as a lawn mower and a steam-propelled torpedo, enabled him in 1830 to construct the model locomotive "Tom Thumb," which demonstrated that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad could be made practicable for sharply curved terrain.
Cooper's philanthropy, however, was more significant than his inventions. The Cooper Union, opened in 1859, reflected Cooper's special desire to provide education for working people. It was a significant contribution to adult education, offering professional and coeducational courses in science, technology, and art at night so that working people could take advantage of them. A well-stocked reading room and weekly public lectures were some of the services offered the public for more than 100 years. Cooper's work provided one model for Andrew Carnegie's later concept of the stewardship of wealth.
Beginning in 1828, when he was elected assistant alderman of the City of New York, Cooper was continuously occupied with civic projects, which included the building of the Croton Reservoir and participation in the Public School Society, which until 1842 oversaw the public schools of the city. His political convictions made him an unusual millionaire in the decades following the Civil War, perhaps America's first "socialist" millionaire. In his 80s he became the presidential candidate of the Greenback party (1876). He sought government management of the currency in the interest of the working classes and proposed government ownership of railroads and public works programs. "Ideas for a Science of Good Government," published in 1883, contained his reform proposals.
Further Reading on Peter Cooper
For a biography of Cooper see Edward C. Mack, Peter Cooper, Citizen of New York (1949). Allan Nevins, Abram S. Hewitt (1935), gives an account of Cooper.