Cooper, Thomas

views updated May 17 2018

Cooper, Thomas

(b. London, England, 22 October 1759; d. Columbia, South Carolina, 11 May 1839),


One of the pioneers in bleaching by clorine in England (ca. 1790). Cooper claimed orginality in using red lead instead of manganese dioxide (together with common salt and sulfuric acid) for preparing the gas. This, he said, not only gave a purer product but left a residue that was not wasted, since lead could be recovered from it by reduction. He established works at Raikes with Kempe Brydges. C. Teesdale, and Joseph Baker, who had devised the apparatus they used—much simpler and more economical than that in general use. The ingredients, with water, were fed into a large barrel, which was then rotated by hand; after allowing the contents to settle, the liquor was run off and used directly—Cooper says they only used it for the finishing process. The firm proved successful for three years but failed in the depression of 1793. Cooper seems to have lost heavily. He immigrated to America, where he later held professorships in chemistry and mineralogy. He is, however, remembered chiefly for his political agitation and tempestuous personality.

Little is known of Cooper’s early life, other than what can be gleaned from his later writings—which are not always perfectly consistent. His parents were apparently wealthy, and Cooper did not lack means. In 1779 he matriculated at Oxford and also married Alice Greenwood. He read law but took no degree: he became a barrister in 1787 but seems to have practiced little. Some years before., he had interest himself in medicine, attending anatomical lectures and veterinary dissections.

It is known that by 1785 Cooper was living near Manchester (he later moved to Bolton); in that year he was elected to membership in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. The papers he read on various subjects displayed erudition and gave expression to radical opinions. He left the society in 1791 in protest at the reticence shown in expressing sympathy for Priestley’s losses during the Birmingham riots. He became a member of the Manchester constitutional Society; and early in 1792, with James Watt, Jr., he visited Paris and read an address pledging the solidarity of the society with the Jacobins. For this Watt and Cooper were bitterly attacked in Parliament by Edmund Burke, who used their action in an attempt to discredit the move for parliamentary reform, against which repressive measures were soon taken.

Cooper sailed for America in August 1793 with two of Priestley’s sons and some of his own family (he had five children by his first wife), returning for the remainder the following year. Priestley also emigratd in 1794, and they both settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania (Cooper lived with Priestley for some time after the latter’s wife died in 1796). In 1799 Cooper resumed political activities, embracing the republican cause; and in 1800 he was tried for sedition and libel against the president. He served six months in prison, his wife dying just before his release. He became a close friend of Jefferson after the latter became president and from 1804 to 1811 he was a member of the state judiciary in Pennsylvania.

In 1802 Cooper became a member of the American Philosophical Society and in 1811 was offered the chair of chemistry at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania (1815–1819) and professor of chemistry at South Carolina College (1819–1834); he was elected president of the college in 1821. Much of his time in South Carolina was spent in campaigning vigorously for states’ rights and free trade. In retirement he compiled the statute laws of the state.

As a practicing scientist Cooper was not outstanding; his most notable achievement was probably the preparation of potassium in 1810 (almost certainly for the first time in America) by strongly heating potash with iron in a gun barrel, a method originated by Gay-Lussac and Thenard in 1808. Cooper’s greatest service to science was undoubtedly the dissemination of information. His biographer, Dumas Malone, wrote (p.399); “Perhaps no man of Cooper’s generation did more than he to advance the cause of science and learning in America,"


1.Original Works. Cooper brought out American editions of a number of English chemistry textbooks, adding comprehensive notes of his own on recent advances, and wrote A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Calicoe Printing (Philadelphia 1815). He gave accounts of his bleaching process in The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (Philadelphia), n.s. 1 (1813), 158–161 (Cooper edited the first three volumes of the new series, 1813–1815); and in “On Bleaching,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s, 1 (1818), 317–324. His many works on, aw, politics, economis, and philosophy are listed by Dumas Malone (see below).

ii.Secondary Literature. Dumas Malone. The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, 1783–1839 (New Haven-London, 1926; repr. New York, 1961), gives the fullest available account of his life and a bibliography (not complete). More details on his articles in periodicals and other works are given by M. Kelly, in Additional Chapters on Thomas Cooper, University of Maine sudies, 2nd ser., no. 15 (Orono, Me., 1930). Kelley writes of cooper’s science: “For the most part he was rather a theorizing dilettant.” A chapter in E.F. Smith, Chemistry in America (New York-London, 1914), pp. 128–146, is devoted to cooper. It includes a long extract from a letter written by Cooper describing his preparation of potassium. A.E. Musson and Eric Robinson, Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution (Manchester, 1969), ch. 3, contains numerous references to cooper and his firm.

See also E. V. Armstrong, “Thomas Cooper As An Itinerant chemist,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 14 (1937) 153–158.

E. L. Scott

Thomas Cooper

views updated May 18 2018

Thomas Cooper

English-born American scientist and educator Thomas Cooper (1759-1839) was also a controversial political pamphleteer.

Thomas Cooper was born in Westminster, England, on Oct. 22, 1759. He studied at Oxford but failed to take a degree. He then heard anatomical lectures in London, took a clinical course at Middlesex Hospital, and attended patients briefly in Manchester. Having also qualified for the law, he traveled as a barrister, engaged briefly in business, and dabbled in philosophy and chemistry.

Being a materialist in philosophy and a revolutionist by temperament, Cooper believed that the English reaction against the French Revolution proved that freedom of thought and speech was no longer possible in England; in 1794 he emigrated to the United States with the scientist Joseph Priestley. He settled near Priestley at North-umberland, Pa., where he practiced law and medicine and began writing political pamphlets on behalf of the Jeffersonian party. In 1800 Cooper was jailed and fined under the new Alien and Sedition Acts.

After Thomas Jefferson's election to the U.S. presidency, Cooper served as a commissioner and then as a state judge, until in 1811 he was removed on a charge of arbitrary conduct by the Pennsylvania Legislature. Driven from politics, Cooper was elected to the chair of chemistry in Carlisle (now Dickinson) College and then served as professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania until 1819. The following year (when clerical opposition denied him the chair Jefferson had created for him at the University of Virginia) Cooper became professor of chemistry in South Carolina College (now University ofSouth Carolina). Elected president of the college, he maintained his connection with it until 1834.

Cooper served mainly as a disseminator of scientific information and as a defender of science against religious encroachments. He edited the Emporium of Arts and Sciences; published practical treatises on dyeing and calico printing, gas lights, and tests for arsenic; and edited several European chemistry textbooks for American use. In Discourse on the Connexion between Chemistry and Medicine (1818) he upheld the materialist position. In On the Connection between Geology and the Pentateuch (1836) Cooper attacked those who sought to correlate geological findings with the biblical account of creation.

A member of the American Philosophical Society, Cooper received an honorary medical degree from the University of New York in 1817. He was twice married: to Alice Greenwood, with whom he had three children; and in 1811 to Elizabeth Hemming, with whom he had three children. He died on May 11, 1839.

Further Reading

The only biography of Cooper is Dumas Malone, The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, 1783-1839 (1926). Benjamin Fletcher Wright, Jr., American Interpretations of Natural Law: A Study in the History of Political Thought (1931), analyzes Cooper's political ideas. Bernard Jaffe, Men of Science in America: The Role of Science in the Growth of Our Country (1944), includes material on Cooper. □

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