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In early boyhood he commenced to help his father as a manufacturer of hats. He attended school only for half of each day for a single year, and beyond this his acquisitions were all his own. When seventeen years old he was placed with John Woodward to learn the trade of coach-making and served his apprenticeship so satisfactorily that his master offered to set him up in business, but this he declined because of the debt and obligation it would involve.
The foundation of Mr. Cooper's fortune was laid in the invention of an improvement in machines for shearing cloth. This was largely called into use during the war of i8i2 with England when all importations of cloth from that country were stopped.The machines lost their value, however, on the declaration of peace. Mr. Cooper then turned his shop into the manufacture of cabinet ware. He afterwards went into the grocery business in New York and finally he engaged in the manufacture of glue and isinglass which he carried on for more than fifty years. In 1830 he erected iron works in Canton, near Baltimore. Subsequently he erected a rolling and a wire mill in the city of New York, in which he first successfully applied anthracite to the puddling of iron.
In these works, he was the first to roll wrought iron beams for fire-proof buildings. These works grew to be very extensive, including mines, blast furnaces, etc. While in Baltimore Mr. Cooper built in 1830, after his own designs, the first locomotive engine ever constructed on this continent and it was successfully operated on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He also took a great interest and invested large capital in the extension of the electric telegraph, also in the laying of the first Atlantic cable; besides interesting himself largely in the New York state canals. But the most cherished object of Mr. Cooper's life was the establishment of an institution for the instruction of the industrial classes, which he carried out on a magnificent scale in New York city, where the "Cooper Union" ranks among the most important institutions.
In May, 1876, the Independent party nominated Mr. Cooper for president of the United States, and at the election following he received nearly 100,000 votes. His death occurred April 4, 1883.