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Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb Locomotive

Peter Cooper was one of the most innovative and resourceful of all the early American manufacturers. Born February 12, 1791 in New York City of Scottish ancestry, both grandfathers, Campbell and Cooper, fought in the Revolutionary War, he moved from hat making to brewing to shearing machines to food sales to glue making to ironworks, blast furnaces and rolling mills. Cooper believed that Baltimore would have tremendous growth if a railroad could be successfully built and operated. With his help, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was started on July 4, 1828. Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned the first sod, but one year later the railroad was in financial difficulty.

Their locomotive could not go around a curve with a radius of less than 300 feet. The railroad, however, had built their curves with a radius of from 150 to 200 feet in order to save on cost. In 1830, Cooper built the first practical steam locomotive in America. As an experiment it was about the size of a handcar and was never intended to operate as a working engine. It was called the “Tom Thumb” because of its size. The engine weighed less than a ton, but the principles developed are still used in engines today.

“Peter Cooper is representative of so many of the peculiar talents and abilities of early Scottish craftsmen. He was an untutored inventor who became a strong, individualist businessman. He bought his own iron mines to feed his blast furnaces and rolling mills. Out of these mills he produced the first iron structural beams. He manufactured the wire and joined Cyrus Fields in laying the first transatlantic cable. Cooper was the first to use the Bessemer steel making process in the U.S. In 1876, Peter Cooper was nominated for President by the Greenback Party. In 1879, he was honored by the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain with the Bessemer Gold Medal. New York University elected him to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans. He died October 4, 1883 in New York City.

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