Cooper was Born in New York City on February 12, 1791. He was a dedicated tinkerer, and industrialist.
His first business was a glue factory on Sunfish Pond in Kips Bay. It was successful, showing a profit of $10,000 within 2 years. Unfortunately the effluent from this factory eventually polluted the pond so badly that in 1839, it was drained and filled.
In 1828, Cooper started investing in 3000 acres in Maryland. He had previously been informed of the proposed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O Railroad for Monopoly enthusiasts) and expected that the land prices would be driven up. He drained swampland, and flattened hills, in the process discovering iron ore. With this fortuitous find, he saw another opportunity, with a market for iron rails in the B&O. The B&O was having technical problems, and Cooper saw yet another opportunity.
In 1830, Cooper cobbled together a locomotive, the Tom Thumb, using various old parts, such as, musket barrels, and small-scale steam engines. The locomotive was successful, and prompted investors to buy stock in B&O, giving the company the ability to buy Cooper's iron rails. This gave Cooper his first fortune.
Cooper continued to produce iron, being the first person to successfully use anthracite coal to puddle iron in 1836. He moved his iron rolling mill from New York to Trenton, NJ on the Delaware river later to be close to the raw materials.
Around this time, Cooper started investing in real estate and insurance, becoming one of the richest men in New York City. In spite of his wealth, he lived modestly, limiting his household staff to two servants, and when his wife bought an expensive carriage, he brought it back, to buy a cheaper, less ostentatious carriage.
In 1854, Cooper was one of the founders of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company, and a year later helped found the American Telegraph Company. In 1858, he helped supervise the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable.
Cooper had an active political life. In 1840, he became an alderman of New York City. He was active in the anti-slavery movement in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Cooper was also a critic of the debt-based monetary system of bank currency, and the gold standard. During the Depression of 1873-1878, he argued that usury was the most significant political problem of the day. He advocated for a credit-based, government issued currency.
In 1876, Cooper ran for president on the Greenback Party Ticket. He is, to date, the oldest person ever nominated by any political party as a candidate for the US Presidency.
Cooper's political legacy extended to his family, Cooper's son, Edward, and his son-in-law Abram S. Hewitt, both served as Mayor of New York City.
In 1853, Cooper began what may be his greatest legacy. He conceived of a free institute in NY, which would offer free practical education to adults in the mechanical arts and sciences. This was similar to the École Polytechnique in Paris, France. In that year, ground was broken for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a private college which continues to be recognized as a top American college in the fields of architecture, art, and engineering, and still awards ALL of its students full scholarships.
Cooper died at the age of 92, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, in Brooklyn.