February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Ezra Cornell

The public always seems slow to grasp the importance of new ideas: the automobile will never replace the horse, people will never abandon their radios in the evening to watch television, and so on. It was that way with the telegraph; the federal government was not interested in developing the technology and even its inventor Robert Morse could not envision how he had revolutionized communication.

Ezra Cornell could. When he heard of Morse’s telegraph the 34-year old millwright from upstate New York left his home and set out on foot for Albany.
He covered the 160 miles in 4 days. He boarded a train to Boston and walked 100 more miles to Maine, his final destination. Cornell had made this arduous journey just to visit the contractor who had won the bid to lay the first telegraph line outside Washington.

The contractor needed a machine to dig the ditch, lay the pipe and cover it. Cornell built such a machine and took over the experimental line. Even before he finished the job Cornell convinced Morse that lines strung on poles would be more serviceable and invented a new type of insulation making such an installation possible.

The experimental telegraph line was a success but the federal government passed on undertaking widespread installation. The indefatigable Cornell single-handedly raised capital and began building short lines. With great struggle he connected Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh with telegraph service. Competition was bitter among the short lines and soon they faced bankruptcy.

The solution, as Cornell clearly saw, was to form one large operating company. In 1855 he put together Western Union Telegraph. Cornell was the largest stockholder and a director for the remaining 20 years of his life as the telegraph made its greatest contributions to United States history, particularly during the Civil War.

With the telegraph firmly established Cornell returned to upstate New York to use his wealth. In 1857 he bought a farm at the edge of Ithaca and turned Forest Park into a model agricultural institution. As a youth Cornell had to borrow books to read so in 1863 he gave Ithaca a library - one of America’s first - and shrewdly named politicians of all parties and ministers of different churches as trustees to insure its success.

Cornell became of president of the New York State Agricultural Society and trustee of the New Agricultural College in Seneca County. When the new school needed money Cornell pledged $500,000 and moved the newly named Cornell University to Ithaca.

Cornell’s vision for education was as far-reaching as his plans for communication - and just as much an anathema. In a time when all schools carried a strong religious connection Cornell wanted no denominational ties for his school. Before Cornell all students had to follow a strict curriculum. He established an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study.” And Cornell expected that women would have an equal opportunity to compete in scholarship with men.

Bitter controversy over his motives and character raged as state legislators debated the transformation of their agricultural college. Cornell was attacked as “Godless” and it was implied he was somehow trying to rob the state. Geographically removed from Civil War battlefields the controversy at times upstaged the great war from the Ithaca papers. Finally on September 5, 1865 bills passed to establish Cornell’s university. The master builder had persevered once more and introduced a disbelieving public to the future.

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