The History of the Tom Thumb Steam Engine and Peter Cooper

First American-Built Steam Locomotive

Steam locomotive Tom Thumb at SteamExpo 86.

Manfred Kopka/Wikimedia Commons

Peter Cooper and the Tom Thumb steam locomotive are important figures in the history of railroads in the United States. The coal-burning engine led to the replacement of horse-drawn trains. It was the first American-built steam locomotive to be operated on a common-carrier railroad.

Peter Cooper

Peter Cooper was born Feb. 12, 1791, in New York City and died on April 4, 1883. He was an inventor, manufacturer, and philanthropist from New York City. The Tom Thumb locomotive was designed and built by Peter Cooper in 1830.

Cooper bought land along the route of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and prepared it for the train route. He found iron ore on the property and founded the Canton Iron Works to produce iron rails for the railroad. His other businesses included an iron rolling mill and a glue factory.

The Tom Thumb was built to convince the railroad owners to use steam engines. It was cobbled together with a small boiler and spare parts that included musket barrels. It was fueled by anthracite coal.

From Trains to Telegraphs and Jell-O

Peter Cooper also obtained the very first American patent for the manufacture of gelatin (1845). In 1895, Pearle B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer, bought the patent from Peter Cooper and turned Cooper's gelatin dessert into a prepackaged commercial product, which his wife, May David Wait, renamed "Jell-O."

Cooper was one of the founders of a telegraph company that eventually bought up competitors to dominate the eastern coast. He also supervised the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858.

Cooper became one of the richest men in New York City due to his business success and investments in real estate and insurance. Cooper founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. 

The Tom Thumb and the First U.S. Railway Chartered to Transport Freight and Passengers

On February 28, 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. railway chartered for commercial transport of passengers and freight. There were skeptics who doubted that a steam engine could work along steep, winding grades, but the Tom Thumb, designed by Peter Cooper, put an end to their doubts. Investors hoped a railroad would allow Baltimore, the second largest U.S. city at the time, to successfully compete with New York for western trade.

The first railroad track in the United States was only 13 miles long, but it caused a lot of excitement when it opened in 1830. Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the first stone when construction on the track began at Baltimore harbor on July 4, 1828

Baltimore and the Ohio River were connected by rail in 1852 when the B&O was completed at Wheeling, West Virginia. Later extensions brought the line to Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland. In 1869, the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific line joined to create the first transcontinental railroad. Pioneers continued to travel west by covered wagon, but as trains became faster and more frequent, settlements across the continent grew larger and more quickly.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Tom Thumb Steam Engine and Peter Cooper." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). The History of the Tom Thumb Steam Engine and Peter Cooper. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Tom Thumb Steam Engine and Peter Cooper." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).