While best known for his role in founding the university that bears his name, Ezra Cornell exemplifies the ingenuity and invention that was necessary to move the United States from an agrarian to an industrial base. During his lifetime, Cornell worked as a carpenter, mechanic, farmer, salesman, inventor, entrepreneur, politician and philanthropist.
The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections' current exhibition, Invention and Enterprise: Ezra Cornell, A 19th Century Life, is on display in the Kroch Library Gallery on campus and chronicles the drama of Cornell's life and its rich historical context.
Prepared by University Archivist Elaine D. Engst, with the assistance of Mark Dimunation, Nancy Dean, Maggie Hale and Phil McCray, the exhibition can be viewed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through June 10.
As a young man, Cornell participated in the early economic development of Ithaca. The exhibit includes Henry Walton's hand-colored lithograph of Ithaca in 1836. Cornell later traveled from Maine to Georgia selling plows, and his comments on sights and events include first-hand observations on slavery in the South. His aptitude for design, mechanics and construction and his acquaintance with Samuel F.B. Morse led to his work in the development of the telegraph, illustrated by a letter from Morse and the original telegraph receiver used in the first telegraph transmission. Cornell was instrumental in the expansion of telegraph lines, and when the lines were consolidated into the Western Union Co., he became its largest shareholder.
Ezra Cornell was active in politics, and the exhibit includes campaign ribbons and other items from presidential elections from William Henry Harrison to Abraham Lincoln. He served in the New York State Legislature, and, as a member of the New York state delegation, attended the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which he noted in his pocket diary. During the Civil War, family members served in both the Union and Confederate armies, and Cornell himself was active in relief work. Throughout his life, he was deeply interested in the implementation of scientific principles for agriculture. While he used his fortune for various philanthropies, his abiding concern for education culminated in the founding and endowment of Cornell University.
This exhibition is primarily based on the letters, diaries, photographs, documents and publications in the Ezra Cornell Papers in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Additional items are on loan from the Johnson Art Museum and the College of Engineering.