Ezra Cornell: Telegraphing the Future

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If you’re the type to compare yourself to others, prepared to be humbled. The life of Ezra Cornell is as varied, fascinating, and admirable as they come.

Cornell’s name would not be found among the wealthy financiers and American nobles who grace the marquee of many a prominent university. He came into the world to much humbler means in January of 1807, the son of a potter residing in Westchester Landing (known today as the Bronx).

Like his father, Ezra was a tradesman, working as a carpenter and traveling extensively throughout the state of New York. These travels brought him face to face with the majesty of the state’s Finger Lakes region. Indeed, when he first beheld picturesque Cayuga Lake, he declared that he would make his home amidst the natural splendor of Ithaca. This decision would eventually have a tremendous impact on the future composition of the so-called Ivy League. But more on that later.

Plows and Poles

Indeed, Ezra’s life would take him to a great many places, and through a great many disciplines, before the call of higher education beckoned. Ezra proved highly ambitious in the field of carpentry, impressing the owner and operator of the nearby Fall Creek mill. Cornell was hired as the mill’s manager but his growing family required him to pursue income outside of his beloved Ithaca. Thus, he purchased the patent for a new plowing technology and styled himself as a traveling salesman.

His two primary territories bookended the great Appalachian Trail, carrying him to Maine during the summers and Georgia in the winters . . . not exactly a tidy tri-state area. And given Cornell’s modest means, he had little choice but to cover his sales territory by foot. Inconvenient though this may sound, it was this preoccupation that would lead to a chance encounter and an eventual fortune.

One day, in 1842, Cornell wandered into the newspaper offices for the Maine Farmer. He encountered an old friend from his travels, F.O.J. Smith, who had recently been granted a one-quarter share of the telegraph patent (owned by Samuel Morse of eventual Morse Code fame). Smith had been toiling over the challenge of burying telegraph lines in the ground. As it happened, Cornell’s ingenuity with plowing technology was exactly what Smith needed. He engineered a special plow with the capacity to dig a trench, lay pipe and wire, and consequently refill the trench. Though this method would soon prove vulnerable to condensation and electrical shorting, the partnership between Smith, Morse, and Cornell would essentially lay the foundation for modern telecommunication.

Wiring America

As it became apparent that telegraph lines were far more effective when suspended from supporting poles, Cornell’s ingenuity proved vital to the process. He oversaw the completion of the very first substantive telegraph line, which ran from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland. Over the coming years, Cornell and Morse collaborated on the completion of numerous lines, including those connecting New York to Albany and Buffalo to Milwaukee. These efforts revealed boundless new possibilities for remote communication, and made Cornell a wealthy man in the process.

He was also something of a pioneer for women in the workplace, hiring his sister Phoebe as the nations’ very first female telegraph operator. Then, in 1851, the numerous telegraph lines that Cornell helped to construct were consolidated into a single operation. This is how Cornell became a founder of the Western Union company.

The Retirement Plan

Now a wealthy and well-regarded man, Cornell retired from Western Union. True to Cornell’s life of hard work and ambition though, this was not a retirement marked by golf and early suppers. Following the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, Cornell became fixed on the idea of creating an institution of higher learning that emphasized not just a classical education, but one that also stressed the development of the practical skills that had served him so well in his lifetime. In 1865, his efforts led to the granting of a charter for Ithaca’s Cornell University.

Ezra’s business savvy and his studious investment in federal lands helped the fledgling university earn a record (at the time) $5 million endowment that would prefigure the school’s storied successes.

Ezra also served as president of the New York Agriculture Society, as a member of the New York State Assembly and, from 1864 to 1867, as a Republican State Senator. When he passed away in 1874, he left a rich and varied biography behind. He also left behind a wealth of insight into his own remarkable life through the written correspondences that he faithfully maintained with the many associates and contacts encountered through his travels. The University library is home to some 30,000 of Cornell’s letters.

Socks in Space

If all of that isn’t enough, the man’s socks have been in outer space. You read that right. In 1990, Cornell graduate and astronaut G. David Low brought the silk stockings that Ezra wore on his wedding day aboard the space shuttle Orbiter Columbia. Not bad for a plow salesman.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!

Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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