Ezra Cornell was the son of Elijah and Eunice Barnard Cornell. The family, of New England Quaker stock, settled in De-Ruyter, Madison County, N.Y., in 1819, where Ezra's father farmed and made pottery. Ezra learned something of both, as well as carpentry from his father, a former ship's carpenter. At 18 he set out on his own and in 1828 he settled in Ithaca, N.Y., where he worked as a carpenter and millwright. His employment in building and maintaining flour mills there came to a close when they were converted to textile mills in 1841.
Cornell's interest in promoting a patent plow brought him into contact with the promoters of the Morse magnetic telegraph; from that time on he was involved in the telegraph industry—organizing, building, and operating lines. He constructed lines which connected New York and Washington, Philadelphia and New York, New York and Albany, then turned to the Midwest to construct a network of lines connecting major points. Cutthroat competition in these early days of the industry led to the combination of many of the leading companies into Western Union Telegraph Company. The concern grew rapidly until it dominated the business in the United States and much of Canada. Cornell's considerable personal fortune was the result of his involvement in such activities during the first 30 years of the industry.
Once he had achieved great personal wealth, Cornell became concerned with public affairs. He financed the construction of a great public library in Ithaca and built and stocked a model farm. His interest in agricultural affairs led to his presidency of the State Agricultural Society. He was a leading member of the New York State Legislature during the 1860s, first as an assemblyman and subsequently as a senator. Here he became concerned with higher education.
Cornell's pledge of his farm as a site plus a half-million-dollar endowment was the essential step that led to the enactment of legislation to found Cornell University. The school opened in 1868. Thereafter Cornell took a keen interest in the university, bestowing sizable gifts and encouraging its adherence to some of his egalitarian ideas of education. The university's freedom from religious ties, interest in the education of women, emphasis upon agricultural and engineering training, and interest in educational opportunities for poor students made it one of the more advanced educational institutions in America. Cornell, a frequent sight on campus, also carefully administered the disposition of the university's Morrill Act land-grant, husbanding that unique resource and eventually producing substantial returns for the university.
Cornell died in 1874. He was survived by his wife, Mary Anne Wood Cornell, and a son, Alonzo B. Cornell, later governor of New York.
There are two full-length biographies of Cornell: Alonzo B. Cornell, True and Firm: Biography of Ezra Cornell (1884), and Albert W. Smith, Ezra Cornell: A Character Study (1934), which contains an extensive bibliography. There is considerable material relating to Cornell in Andrew Dickson White, Autobiography, vol. 1 (1905), and My Reminiscences of Ezra Cornell (1890). Histories of Cornell University also contain material of interest. □