PhD Harvard University
A Financial History of Cooper Union
Pleas for the Polytechnic
A “thorough polytechnic, equal to the best technological schools now established, or hereafter to be established”[i], was listed in the Charter as one of the objects and purposes of the founder. Lacking the funds, Peter Cooper tried to persuade Columbia University and New York City to set up a polytechnic in the Foundation Building, without success.[ii] He was anxious about delays in launching the polytechnic, citing the rapid industrialization under way:
“The extraordinary industrial development of the age, and especially of this country, requires that a thorough school of practical science should be undertaken without delay”.[iii]
He believed deeply that science was the path to truth, and that the application of science was a route to improving of the lives of people in the city, the nation and the world. He also believed that education in science and its application was a fast track for the working classes to elevate their economic condition.[iv]
This goal was important enough for him to suggest that a tuition-based school should be an option, if the resources didn’t exist for it to be free:
“The establishment of the polytechnic school as a free institution, in whole or in part, must be deferred or it must be undertaken as a pay school…. making such charge for tuition only as will make up any deficiency in their revenues applicable for this purpose.”[v]
By 1861, Peter Cooper and his fellow trustees cited a new source of urgency. Planning was well under way for what was to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
“The need for such a school becomes everyday more apparent”. “Already the intelligent citizens of Boston are moving, with their accustomed spirit and liberality, in the establishment in that city of an Institute of Technology.”[vi]
In The Fifth Annual Report[vii] in 1864, Peter Cooper and the Board stated that they “feel bound to notify the public that nothing but an inconsiderable amount of money is required to ensure the immediate establishment of the Scientific and Technical School [referring to the polytechnic, also referred to as the Day School of Science and the School of Technology], so indispensable to the future prosperity and glory of the city”. They estimated this amount to be $100,000 (roughly $8.9 million in today’s dollars, calculated at 3% annual inflation).
By 1866, they bemoaned the fact that gifts from Frederick A. Lane, William Pitt Palmer, and Robert C. Goodhue, “making $1600 in all, are the only donations of money which have been made to the Institution by persons other than its founder”[viii]. Mr. Goodhue’s gift, which was received in 1864, “was offset by the fact that 1864 was the first, but by no means the last, year in which the school operated with a deficit.”[ix]
By 1868, the estimated cost of the “School of Technology” had escalated to $500,000 (roughly $44.7 million today).
Appeals were made to present and future graduates. “Doubtless some graduate of the night classes will sooner or later supply the necessary means”[x], wrote Peter Cooper and his trustees. Humphreys was blunt in his assessment of the response over the next seventeen years: “It was certainly later – 1901 – and the endowment then needed had gone up by a factor of twelve (nor were the donors alumni).”[xi]
Peter Cooper and the trustees proposed, futilely, that each of 500 members of a planned Society of Associates of Cooper Union contribute $1,000 (roughly $89,000 today), or each of 1000 members contribute $500.[xii] Humphreys wrote that by the time the day school of science and technology was launched in 1901, “the endowment then needed had gone up by a factor of twelve (nor were the donors alumni).”[xiii]
[i] Charter of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1859. As Ammended by Chapter 257 of the Laws of 1969 and by Resolution of the Regents of the State of New York, January 26, 1972.
[ii] Edward C. Mack, Peter Cooper, Citizen of New York. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.
[iii] op. cit., Peter Cooper et al., 1860.
[iv] op. cit., Edward C. Mack.
[v] op. cit., Edward C. Mack.
[vi] op. cit., Peter Cooper et al., 1861.
[vii] Peter Cooper et al, The Fifth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1864.
[viii] Peter Cooper et al, The Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1866.
[ix] Richard F. Humphreys, “To Correct a Prevailing Impression…”, At Cooper Union, 1964 (Fall).
[x] op. cit., Humphreys.
[xi] op. cit., Humphreys.
[xii] Peter Cooper et al, The Ninth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1868.
[xiii] op. cit., Humphreys.