The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, established in 1859, is among the nation's oldest and most distinguished institutions of higher learning. The college, the legacy of Peter Cooper, occupies a special place in the history of American education. It is the only private, full-scholarship college in the United States dedicated exclusively to preparing students for the professions of architecture, art and engineering.
Peter Cooper was a workingman's son who had less than a year of formal schooling. Yet he went on to become an industrialist and an inventor; it was Peter Cooper who designed and built America's first steam railroad engine. Cooper made his fortune with a glue factory and an iron foundry. Later, he turned his entrepreneurial skills to successful ventures in real estate, insurance, railroads and telegraphy. He even once ran for president.
In the late 1850s, when Cooper was a principal investor and first president of the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph Co., the firm undertook one of the l9th century's monumental technical enterprises laying the first Atlantic cable. Cooper also invented instant gelatin, with help from his wife, Sarah, who added fruit to what the world would come to know as Jello.
If Cooper sounds like a real-life Horatio Alger, perhaps it is no surprise that three of Alger's tales tell of young men passing The Cooper Union's stately Foundation Building and, duly inspired, deciding immediately to lead productive and moral lives.
As a boy, Peter Cooper learned carpentry, beer brewing and hat and coach making. But he was acutely aware of his lack of "even a common education," a deficiency that bothered him throughout his life. Though he later became one of America's richest men, he could not spell. So, in 1800, as a nine-year-old apprentice carriage-maker in New York City, he sought a place where he could learn scientific techniques and theory to supplement his innate inventiveness and manual skill. He found no such place.
As he grew up and became one of the most successful businessmen of America's Gilded Age, Cooper never forgot his beginnings or his lack of education. He thought children of immigrants and the working class deserved access to education. Believing that education should be "as free as water and air" and inspired by a polytechnic school in Paris, he spent the last 30 years of his life creating and nurturing a school for the "boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I."
As one of the first colleges to offer a free education to working-class children and to women, Cooper Union was a pioneer long before access to education became public policy. Cooper's example motivated the founders of other prestigious colleges, such as Andrew Carnegie, Ezra Cornell and Matthew Vassar.
At first, Cooper Union provided night classes for men and women in the applied sciences and architectural drawing. In addition, the college's Female School of Design, open during the day, offered free art classes as well as training in the new occupations of photography, telegraphy, "type-writing" and shorthand.
Those free classes a landmark in American history and the prototype for what is now called continuing education have evolved into three distinguished schools that make up The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art: the School of Art, the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and the Albert Nerken School of Engineering.
Cooper, however, founded more than a college. From the beginning, Cooper Union also provided a public reading room and library and a meeting place for artists and inventors. In the historic 900-seat Great Hall, the public heard social and political reformers as well as free lectures on science and government. Before they were elected, Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft and Theodore Roosevelt spoke in the celebrated auditorium. Abraham Lincoln gave his "Right Makes Might" speech from the Great Hall podium, assuring him the presidency. Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton are the only incumbent presidents to speak there. President Clinton, on May 12, 1993, delivered a major economic address on reducing the federal deficit. Today, the Great Hall continues as a home for public forums, cultural events and community activities.
Cooper Union is also the place where Thomas Edison and Felix Frankfurter were students; where the Red Cross and NAACP were organized; where Susan B. Anthony had her offices and where researchers developed the prototype of the microchip.
Peter Cooper's dream was to give talented young people the one privilege he lacked a good education. He also wanted to make possible the development of talent that otherwise would have gone undiscovered. His dream providing an education "equal to the best" has come true. Since 1859, Cooper Union has educated thousands of artists, architects and engineers, many of them leaders in their fields. Today, his dream is still our mission.