Peter Cooper was born in New York City to Dutch parents on February 12, 1791, and raised in Peekskill, New York. Not given the opportunity for formal education, Cooper developed a mechanical inclination at an early age, which led to his pioneering, inventive, and philanthropic spirit.
Cooper's most prominent invention was America's first steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, which attained speeds over fifteen miles per hour. He set about building the Tom Thumb as a result of his faith in the power of the new railroad industry to generate economic growth. Convinced that the newly proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would increase land values in Maryland, he invested in real estate by purchasing 3,000 acres outside Baltimore.
While leveling the land he found iron ore and so established the Canton Iron Works. The speed Tom Thumb attained in a race against a horse on 28 August 1830 demonstrated the promise of steam-powered railroad locomotives and helped to increase the price of shares in the B&O, which allowed the company to buy rails from Cooper. Thus he made his first fortune.
Cooper's other contribution to the industrialization of America included the first American-built steam locomotive (called the Tom Thumb), isinglass, gelatin (jello), and a new method of salt-making. He was also a founding member of the company that laid the first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
Peter Cooper's greatest achievement was the establishment of the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences in 1854. Cooper Union provided free education to the gifted working class of New York City. He wanted to "give to the world an equivalent in some form of useful labor for all that I consumed in it."
Peter Cooper died in New York City on April 4, 1883, leaving a remarkable legacy of invention and philanthropy.