Peter Cooper, an American philanthropist, born in New York, Feb. 12, 1791. His maternal grandfather, John Campbell, was an alderman of New York and deputy quartermaster general during the revolutionary war, and expended a considerable private fortune in the service of his country. His father was a lieutenant in the war of the revolution, after the close of which he established a hat manufactory. This period of Peter Cooper's life was one of great anxiety and hard labor, as his father was not successful in his undertakings, and had a large family to provide for. He attended school only half of each day for a single year, and beyond the knowledge thus gained his acquisitions are entirely his own. At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to the trade of coachmaking, and served out his time so much to the satisfaction of his master, that the latter offered to set him up in business, which he declined. He for some time followed his trade; next engaged in the manufacture of patent machines for shearing cloth, which were in great demand during the war of 1812, but lost all value on the declaration of peace; then in the manufacture of cabinet ware; then in the grocery business in the city of New York; and finally in the manufacture of glue and isinglass, which he carried on for 50 years.
His attention was early called to the great resources of this country for the manufacture of iron, and in 1830 he erected extensive works at Canton near Baltimore. Disposing of these, he subsequently erected a rolling and wire mill in the city of New York, in which he first successfully applied anthracite to the puddling of iron. In 1845 he removed the machinery to Trenton, N. J., where he erected the largest rolling mill at that time in the United States for the manufacture of railroad iron, and at which subsequently he was the first to roll wrought-iron beams for fire-proof buildings. These works have grown to be very extensive, including mines, blast furnaces, and water power, and are now carried on by Mr. Cooper's family. While in Baltimore he built after his own designs the first locomotive engine constructed on this continent, and it was used successfully on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. He took great interest in the extension of the electric telegraph, in which he invested a large capital. He served in both branches of the New York common council, and was a prominent advocate of the construction of the Croton aqueduct. His great object was to educate and elevate the industrial classes of the community.
He early became a trustee of the public school society, and at the time of its being merged in the board of education was its vice president. He subsequently became a school commissioner; but feeling that no common school system could supply a technological education, he determined to establish in his native city an institution in which the working classes could secure that instruction for which he, when young and ambitious, sought in vain. In furtherance of this object the "Union for the Advancement of Science and Art," commonly called the "Cooper Institute," was erected in New York at the junction of Third and Fourth avenues, between Seventh and Eighth streets, covering the entire block, at a cost of over $650,000, to which Mr. Cooper has since added an endowment of $150,000 in cash. This building is devoted by a deed of trust, with all its rents, issues, and profits, to the instruction and elevation of the working classes of the city of New York. The plan includes regular courses of instruction at night, free to all who choose to attend, on social and political science, on the application of science to the useful occupations of life, and on such other branches of knowledge as will tend to improve and elevate the working classes.
It includes also a school of design for females, now attended by 200 pupils, a free reading room and library, resorted to by about 1,500 readers, galleries of art, collections of models of inventions, and a polytechnic school. The evening schools are attended by 2,000 pupils, mostly young mechanics, who study engineering, mining, metallurgy, analytic and synthetic chemistry, architectural drawing, and practical building. There are also for women a school of telegraphy, which in four years has sent out 307 operators, a school of wood engraving, and a school of photography, all of which are free and are well attended. These schools employ upward of 30 instructors. The receipts of the institute in 1872, from rents and interest on endowment, were about $37,000 and the expenditures $56,000. Mr. Cooper is now (1873), at the age of 82, still vigorous in mind and body, and devotes himself to works of charity and public benefit.