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Hon. Ezra Cornell


AMONG the names of the great benefactors of education, that of EZRA CORNELL must always occupy a place in the front rank. Very few men living or dead have contributed so largely to the diffusion of knowledge among men, as this plain, practical business man. Though deprived of the advantages of collegiate training in early life, he has sought to give to all classes the boon of a higher education; and he has done this so wisely and well, that numberless generations to come will rise up and bless him for it.

EZRA CORNELL was born at Westchester Landing, Westchester county, New York, January 11th, 1807. His parents were members of the Society of Friends. His father was by 
trade a potter, and carried on the business extensively, at one time, in Tarrytown, afterward at English Neighborhood, New Jersey. Young Cornell made himself useful in his father's shop in attending to customers and delivering ware.  

In 1819, his father removed to De Ruyter, Madison county, New York, where he again established a pottery, and with the assistance of Ezra and a younger son conducted a farm.

The advantages for early scholastic training which Mr. CorneIl enjoyed were few, yet, such as they were, he eagerly availed himself of them. At De Ruyter, his father taught a district school during the winter terms, which he attended.  The last year of his "schooling," being then about seventeen years of age, he obtained, as it were, by purchase, he and his brother agreeing to clear four acres of wood-land in time to plant corn in the following spring. This was done, and an excellent crop of corn secured, without the aid of a day's labor from other sources. Notwithstanding his limited facilities for tuition, Ezra made considerable advancement in the various branches of common-school learning, and was even advised to teach on his own account. This advice he did not see fit to follow, but turned his attention to farming.  In 1825, an incident occurred which called out his great natural mechanical ability.  His father hired a carpenter to build a shop, and Ezra obtained permission to assist in preparing the frame. While the work was in progress, he pointed out to the carpenter an error in the laying out of one of the corner posts, and at the risk of a flogging, convinced him of his mistake. Soon afterward his father requested him to build a dwelling-house, and though he had never seen a book on architecture, taking the house of a neighbor as his model, he went bravely at it, and after weeks of persevering effort, although annoyed and thwarted by officious and meddlesome persons, who were fearful that he would succeed, yet he finally triumphed in the construction of a substantial and comfortable house, into which his father removed.   The execution of this task obtained for him the admiration of his neighbors, and a good knowledge of carpentry. In 1826, we find the elder son leaving his father's house to seek his fortune among strangers. During the next year he found employment at Horner, Cortland county, in building wool-carding machines. In the spring of 1828, he went to Ithaca, and engaged with a Mr. Eddy to work in the machine shop of' his cotton factory one year, at eight dollars per month and his board. His services were evidently appreciated, as he says himself: "I had worked six months on this contract, when Mr. Eddy surprised me one morning by saying to me that he thought I was not getting wages enough, and that he had made up his mind to pay me twelve dollars per month the balance of the year. I thanked him and continued my labors. At the end of the year, I had credit for six months, at eight dollars per month, and seven months, at twelve dollars per month, having gained one month during the year by overwork. Twelve hours were credited as a day's work, and I have found no day since that time, which has not demanded twelve hours work from me." 

In 1829, the success gained by him in repairing a flouring-mill at Fall Creek, Ithaca, led to his effecting an engagement with the proprietor of the mill to take charge of it, at four hundred dollars a year. He remained in this position ten years, during which period he built a new flouring-mill, containing eight runs of stones. This latter mill he worked two years, turning out four hundred barrels of flour per day, during the fall or flouring season, and employing only one miller. He had so admirably adjusted the mechanism of this mill, that manual labor was only required to take the flour from the mill.

The term of his engagement having expired, he next engaged in business of an agricultural nature, conducting it partly in Maine, and partly in Georgia.  His brother was associated in this business. Their plan was to spend the summer in Maine, and the winter in Georgia. These operations led to an acquaintance which terminated in his becoming interested in rendering available the magnetic telegraph, for the purpose of communication between distant places.

Mr. Cornell's history, in connection with the early introduction of telegraphing, is highly interesting. During the winter of 1842 and 1843, while in Georgia, he conceived a plan for employing the State prison convicts of Georgia in the manufacture of agricultural implements; and after thoroughly examining its feasibility, went to Maine for the purpose of settling some unfinished business, preparatory to entering upon the execution of his project. While in Maine, he called upon Jr. Mr. F. O. J. Smith, then editor of the Portland "Farmer." He was informed by Mr. Smith, that Congress had appropriated thirty thousand dollars toward building a telegraph, under the direction of Professor Morse, between Baltimore and Washington, and that he (Smith) had taken the contract to lay the pipe in which the telegraphic cable was to be enclosed, and he was to receive one hundred dollars a mile for the work. Mr. Smith also informed Mr. Cornell that, after a careful examination, he had found that he would lose money by the job, and, at the same time, showed him a piece of the pipe, and explained the manner of its construction, the depth to which it was to be laid, and the difficulties which he expected to encounter in carrying out the design.  Mr. Cornell, at this same interview, after the brief explanation which Mr. Smith had given, told him that, in his opinion, the pipe could be laid by machinery at a much less expense than one hundred dollars a mile, and it would be, in the main, a profitable operation. At the same time, he sketched on paper the plan of a machine which he thought practicable. This led to the engagement of Mr. Cornell by Mr. Smith, to make such a machine. And he immediately went to work and made patterns for its construction. While the machine was being made, Mr. Cornell went to Augusta, Maine, and settled up his business, and then returned to Portland and completed the pipe machine. Professor Morse was notified, by Mr. Smith, in regard to the machine, and went to Portland to see it tried. The trial proved a success. Mr. Cornell was employed to take charge of laying the pipe. Under his hands the work advanced rapidly, and he had laid ten miles or more of the pipe, when Professor Morse discovered that his insulation was so imperfect that the telegraph would not operate. He did not, however, stop the work until he had received orders, which orders came in the following singular manner. When the evening train came out from Baltimore, Professor Morse was observed to step from the car; he walked up to Mr. Cornell and took him aside, and said, "Mr. Cornell, cannot you contrive to stop the work for a few days without its being known that it is done on purpose? If it is known that I ordered the stoppage, the papers will find it out, and have all kinds of stories about it."   Mr. Cornell saw the condition of affairs with his usual quickness of discernment, and told the professor that he would make it all right. So he ordered the drivers to start the team of eight mules, which set the machine in motion, and, while driving along at a lively pace, in order to reach the Relay House, a distance of about twenty rods, before it was time to "turn out," managed to tilt the machine so as to catch it under the point of a projecting rock. This apparent accident so damaged the machine as to render it useless. The professor retired in a state of perfect contentment, and the Baltimore papers, on the following morning, had an interesting subject for a paragraph.  The work thus being suspended of necessity, Professor Morse convened a grand council at the Relay House, composed of himself, Professor Gale, Dr. Fisher, Mr. Vane, and F. O. J. Smith, the persons especially concerned in the undertaking. After discussing the matter, they. determined upon further efforts for perfecting the insulation. These failed, and orders were given to remove every thing to Washington. Up to this time, Professor Morse and his assistants had expended twenty-two thousand dollars, and all in vain. Measures were taken to reduce the expenses, and Mr. Cornell was appointed assistant superintendent, and took entire charge of the undertaking. He now altered the design, substituting poles for the pipe. This may be regarded as the commencement of "air lines" of telegraph. He commenced the erection of the line between Baltimore and Washington on poles, and had it in successful operation in time, to report the proceedings of the Conventions which nominated Henry Clay and James K. Polk for the presidency.

Although the practicability of the telegraph had been so thoroughly tested, it did not become at once popular. A short line was erected in New York city in the spring of 1845, having its lower office at 112 Broadway, and its upper office near Niblo's. The resources of the company had been entirely exhausted, so that they were unable to pay Mr. Cornell for his services, and he was directed to charge visitors twenty-five cents for admission, so as to raise the funds requisite to defray expenses. Yet sufficient interest was not shown by the community even to support Mr. Cornell and his assistant. Even the New York press were opposed to the telegraphic project. The proprietor of the "New York Herald," when called upon by Mr. Cornell, and requested to say a good word in his favor, emphatically refused, stating distinctly, that it would be greatly to his disadvantage should the telegraph succeed. Stranger still is it, that many of those very men, who would be expected to be entirely in favor of the undertaking, viz., men of scientific pursuits, stood aloof, and declined to indorse it. In order to put up the line in the most economical manner, Mr. Cornell desired to attach the wires to the city buildings which lined its course. Many house-owners objected, alleging that it would invalidate their insurance policies by increasing the risk of their buildings being struck by lightning. Mr. Cornell cited the theory of the lightning-rod, as demonstrated by Franklin, and showed that the telegraphic wire would add safety to their buildings. Some persons still refused„ but informed him that could he procure a certificate from Professor Renwick, then connected with Columbia college, to the effect that the wires would not increase the risk of their buildings, they would allow him to attach his wires. Mr. Cornell thought the obtaining of such a certificate a very easy matter, as certainly all scientific men were agreed upon the Franklin theory. He therefore posted off to Columbia college, saw the distinguished savant, stated his errand, and requested the certificate, saying it would be doing Professor Morse a great favor.

To his utter consternation, the learned professor replied, " No, I cannot do that," alleging that "the wires would increase the risk of the buildings being struck by lightning." Mr. Cornell was obliged to go into an elaborate discussion of the Franklin theory of the lightning-rod, until the professor confessed himself in error, and prepared the desired certificate, for which opinion he charged him twenty-five dollars. His certificate enabled Mr. Cornell to carry out his plans.

In 1845, he superintended the construction of a line of telegraph from New York to Philadelphia. In 1846, he erected a line from New York to Albany in four months, and made five thousand dollars profit. In 1847, he erected the line from Troy to Montreal, by contract, and was thirty thousand dollars the gainer by it, which he invested in western lands. He also invested largely in telegraphic stock generally, other lines having neon put up by other parties, being confident in the ultimate success of the magnetic telegraph. These investments in the past fifteen years, have so increased in value as to make Mr. Cornell one of the "solid men" of the country. He certainly has deserved success, especially as he was foremost in carrying the telegraph through the gloomy clays of its early career.

As a gentleman of fortune, he has exhibited great liberality by contributing largely toward many benevolent enterprises.  In 1862 he was President of the State Agricultural Society; and while in London that year he sent several soldiers from England to the United States, at his own expense, who joined our army on their arrival at New York. In 1862–'3 he was elected a member of the New York Assembly, and in 1861–'5 a member of the Senate.

But the crowning glory of Mr. Cornell's career has been his munificent educational benefactions. He made Ithaca, New York, his home some years since, and discerning, in his quick way, the need of a public library there, he erected a building and gave an endowment of twenty-five thousand dollars, which he has since increased to fifty thousand, for the purchase of books, and the support of the necessary librarian, etc.

At this time, two educational institutions had been started in central New York, intended to be State institutions, and with the promise of considerable endowments, if the State would lend its fostering aid in enabling them to get under way. These were the People's college at Ovid, New York, and the Agricultural college at Havana, New York. Both received large sums 
from the State, and a considerable amount from private benefactions, and were to divide between them the agricultural college land grant of Congress, if they could comply with certain conditions. Both failed utterly, and rather from mismanagement than from lack of funds.

Mr. Cornell had been an attentive observer of the course pursued by these two colleges, and had formed a plan for the erection and endowment of a university which should not prove a failure. He was at this time a member of the State Senate, and having matured his plan, he asked for a charter for a university, to be located at Ithaca or its immediate vicinity, to be called the Cornell university, which he proposed to endow with the sum of five hundred thousand dollars.

The charter was granted, but with one condition, which reflects more credit on the shrewdness, than the honor of the lobby. It was that he should be permitted to make this munificent endowment of a university, for the benefit of the youth of the State, if he would, over and above the five hundred thousand dollars, bestow an additional twenty-five thousand dollars upon Genesee college, at Lima, New York. Most men would have turned, with loathing, from a Legislature that could have the meanness to couple such a demand with their offer of a charter; but Mr. Cornell was too deeply interested in the promotion of education to draw back, and he met their demand, paid the twenty-five thousand dollars, and received his charter.

The next year, finding that both the colleges referred to had failed to comply with the conditions on which they were to receive the agricultural land grant, he asked it for his university on the same conditions, and received it. He had been, during all this time, busy in procuring the views and plans of the most eminent educators in regard to the organization of his university, and having increased his endowment to $760,000, he now took upon his own shoulders the location and sale of the agricultural land scrip, amounting to 990,000 acres, for the university, and with such success, that the ultimate endowment, from this source, will probably reach two millions of dollars or more. The complete and ample endowment of the university, in the speedy future, being thus placed beyond a contingency, he has superintended the erection of the needful buildings, for commencing the work of instruction, and in connection with the trustees of the university, elected Hon. Andrew White, an accomplished scholar, in the very prime of life, as president, and a large corps of able professors and lecturers, and to this faculty he confided the duty of settling the course of study, and the general principles on which education is to be imparted in the new university. The plan adopted, while by no means ignoring the classics, provides for optional courses of study, the requirements in each being such as shall entitle the student, if he compasses them, to a degree; and they are so arranged, as to leave no loophole for any student to obtain his degree without severe and constant study, and an amount of attainment which, though more in the direction of his particular tastes, shall be fully equivalent to the demands of the best universities, either here or abroad. The university is most amply supplied with books, apparatus, museums, and all the appliances of successful study, which are to be found in any institution in the country, and its special and post graduate courses comprise many topics of study not hitherto connected with any university in the country.  

Other liberal souls have availed themselves of the opportunity of adding special endowments to the different departments of this great school ; and Cornell University, though an infant in years, has already taken its place among our collegiate institutions of the first rank. 

A noble, grand, and praiseworthy benefaction is this; one whose blessed influences shall be felt in all the ages of the future, and shall exert an influence upon the nation, in enlarging its enterprise, elevating its purposes, and refining its intellectual aspirations. In Mr. Cornell's history, the young may see what industry and enterprise can accomplish ; the mechanic may learn the results of energy, and the possibility of the combination of a great success with an active benevolence; and the rich may find that a wise beneficence brings in the largest revenue of happiness, and that it is better for a man of wealth to be his own executor, then to leave his fortune to be wasted by interminable lawsuits, and the bitter quarrels of heirs who neither knew nor loved him.

Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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