TOMMY BRUCE: Welcome to the Cornell Entrepreneur Network Sponsored Webinar. This one is entitled Ezra Cornell-- Cornell University's First Entrepreneur. I'm Tommy Bruce, Vice President for University Communications, and I'm delighted to be here today with all of you.
146 years today, on this very date, the New York City legislator-- the New York legislature signed into existence our great university. And so, therefore, it's very fitting on this day to be both celebrating and acknowledging that date, and also talking about our founder, who would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.
And from the get-go, this University, which was understood from the very beginning as the first truly American university, was also the original opportunity university. And to help us think about the meaning of all this, the vision that had to be entertained by Ezra Cornell in order to be able to create this university, we have Corey Earle with us, known to many of you as our budding historian-in-residence. Let me just tell you a little bit about him.
Corey is the Associate Director of Student Programs in the Office of Alumni Affairs. He's a 2007 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He works in-- he has worked in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collections of Kroch Library as a Reference Specialist. And so I think it's in doing that he has found a lot of treasures to share with us and to remind us in our daily activities about where we all come from. So he has also worked with the Cornell Daily Sun and "Dear Uncle Ezra." Cornell is also on the Board of Trustees of the History Center of Tompkins County.
But before I let Corey join us in this conversation and start talking to you about the subject of today's webinar, there are some-- a little bit of business that I like to remind people at the beginning of webinars, and that is how to communicate with us. So you can see at the bottom of your browser here, there is a little hand-waving person. It's actually up here at the top in the middle. Well, if you click on that, that will indicate to me that you are actually ready to ask a live question.
Otherwise, please do not hesitate to use the chat box right there and to type in your question. I'll try to-- while Corey is working on answering your questions and telling you about the history of Cornell University, I will monitor those questions. So without any further ado, it's my pleasure to introduce Corey Earle.
COREY EARLE: Thank you, Tommy. I'm really happy to be here. This is my first one of these webinars, and I hope you'll enjoy learning a little bit about who Ezra Cornell was. It's really fitting and appropriate that today is Founding Day, the anniversary of really the creation of Cornell University's charter.
And it used to be actually that Cornell University would celebrate Founder's Day on Ezra Cornell's birthday, which is January 11, 1807. So it used to be that every January 11, the university would cease operations and have a major holiday on Founder's Day. Unfortunately, the university isn't in session in January these days. It used to be that classes went through January. So Founder's Day has kind of been lost as a holiday.
So we took this opportunity on Founding Day to celebrate our founder Ezra Cornell. And it was at a Founder's Day celebration actually years ago in 1887 that a speech was given that I think sums up why we think Ezra Cornell is important to talk about today and what the purpose of this webinar is.
And so a speech at that Founder's Day celebration in 1887 was given by Francis Finch, who was a trustee, a charter trustee of the University, and actually, the second Dean of Cornell's Law School. And he said, "I trust that through all vicissitudes and changes, however the new may supersede the old, in time and death, blur or efface the past, there may yet remain at the center-- as the center of every aim and ambition, as the stimulus to every useful effort, as the atmosphere of the university, the memory of Ezra Cornell." So that's what we're here today to talk about, the memory of Ezra Cornell, and really who Ezra Cornell was.
I think a lot of students go through the university and they know the name Ezra Cornell, certainly. And they maybe know a little bit about where he made his money. Or they certainly would recognize the beard. But they maybe don't know the full story behind who Ezra was and what he did to earn his money, and really, the vision he had to create Cornell University. So that's going to be our topic today. So it's in that spirit that we'll get started.
Ezra really was a Renaissance man of many talents, many interests, and a lot of different careers. And I think he epitomized what it meant to be an entrepreneur, which is why we're doing today's webinar for the Cornell Entrepreneur Network. It's really appropriate, since Ezra was Cornell University's first entrepreneur.
He was an innovator. He was a leader. He was a hard worker. And he was willing to take on risk to make a change in the world. And he was persistent with his beliefs. If he believed that he could make a change, or that his idea needed to be implemented, he would push through all odds and make it happen. And that's really what led to the creation of our university.
So we'll start at the beginning with Ezra's birth. He was born, as I mentioned, January 11, 1807-- actually born in Westchester. And he was the oldest of 10 siblings. So he had quite a large family. And the family moved when he was a young child to DeRuyter, which is about 40 miles or so away from Ithaca. So he moved to upstate New York-- not too far away.
And he wasn't wealthy-- wasn't born into a wealthy family by any means. His father was a potter, actually, and supporting a family of so many children. He's the eldest of 10 siblings, so supporting a family of 10 children on a potter's salary was difficult. So certainly, the family wasn't well off. And the family moved to a farm in DeRuyter.
And Ezra, from a very early age, was particularly interested in education. And you'll see that throughout his life, education was a keynote throughout. And so it comes up very early in his career. When he was a young child, his father actually told him that he could attend school for three months if he cleared four acres of forest in order to create a cornfield.
So Ezra, not having any formal opportunity for education, this was his chance to get an education. So he took it upon himself to clear four acres of forest to create a cornfield in order just to attend three months of formal schooling as a young child. So I think it's neat that you see very early on in his life that Ezra was interested in education. And we'll pull up a slide, actually. We do have some visuals throughout the presentation to help move it along.
So our first slide, actually, you'll see Ezra's parents there-- Mr. And Mrs. Cornell, so around the time they moved to DeRuyter in Ezra's youth. And so his interest in education comes in, again, early on-- actually, in the purchase of his first book. And it's a neat item that we have in the archives, so I wanted to highlight that. Whenever you're back on campus, I highly recommend checking out the Kroch Library Rare and Manuscript Collections, where they have a lot of these treasures.
But this particular book, he pulled it out later in his life and wrote an inscription in it. And it says, "This is the first book I ever owned." It was offered by a peddler at my farmer's house in DeRuyter, Madison County, New York. I persuaded my mother to buy it for me. She had no money. And to oblige me, she picked up paper rags about the house to make up the price of it. I read the book with interest. But when Jackson was a candidate in 1828 for the presidency, I opposed him and voted for Adams. I favored a protective tariff. Ezra Cornell."
So the book was actually Memoirs of Andrew Jackson. And it shows that early on in his career, he was interested in education, and he wanted this book. And even though the family couldn't really afford a book, his mom did what she could to help Ezra educate himself, which brings us, actually, to Ezra's ciphering book, another item that you can check out in the archives.
And Ezra's ciphering book was basically a blank book that he kept track of every cent he earned and spent as a young man. So from an early age, as well as being interested in education, he was interested in economics and finance and making sure that he wasn't spending more than he'd earned. So you see the early signs of a budding entrepreneur in young Ezra.
And he also-- you can see in the book that he would teach himself math. He would do some times tables here and there. And we'll get back to the cyphering book a little later. Because he actually pulls it out later in life. So I'll touch on that in a moment.
So as a young man, Ezra actually took an interest in carpentry. And he, at the age of 19, amazed his neighbors and community by constructing almost a perfect house for his family with no formal training. So he hadn't been an apprentice as a young carpenter-- really taught himself the trade. And at the age of 19 constructed a house, and was really the envy of his community for having such fine craftsmanship.
And it's at that point in his early 20s, a couple of years later, that he decides to make his own way in the world. And he leaves the family in DeRuyter and heads to Ithaca, New York. Ithaca was sort of a budding community. Industry really picking up there. A lot of mills being the main industry. So he arrives in his early 20s-- in 1828, actually.
And so he has a few jobs as a carpenter around the community. And then he becomes a mechanic for a cotton mill. And the mill was actually owned by Otis Eddy. So some of you might recognize that name as the namesake of Eddy Street in Collegetown. Ezra worked as a mechanic for the mill. And because of his success there, he was hired by another local businessman, Jeremiah Beebe, another name you might recognize as the namesake of Beebe Lake.
So he worked for the plaster and flour mills of Jeremiah Beebe, and actually became a manager of them. And it was while working for Beebe that he had a major impact on the community, and that he actually created what is now Beebe Lake. It was Ezra who was in charge of the damming of Triphammer Falls. He led that effort that created what was known as Beebe Pond, at that point. It was a little smaller.
And another thing, you'll see an image of a tunnel next to young Ezra. And it was Ezra who built a 200-foot tunnel. He actually blasted it through the gorge walls to bring water from Fall Creek to the mills downstream. So this is in Fall Creek Gorge. And you can actually still see the tunnel today.
And this is another example of Ezra's real ingenuity. He blasted the tunnel. There's a 200-foot tunnel, and he blasted it from both sides. And it actually connected in the middle with less than an inch off. It was considered a major feat of engineering that this young man was able to do that and create this tunnel blasting from both sides.
It's important to know a little bit about Ezra's family at this point. Ezra married Mary Ann Wood in 1831. And she was a native of Dryden, New York, not too far away. And the most important thing to note here is that Ezra was a Quaker, and that Mary was an Episcopalian. And it wasn't appropriate for Quakers to marry outside the faith. So Ezra was actually told by his church that this was inappropriate and that he wasn't welcome with his Quaker church anymore.
And Ezra demonstrates his stubbornness a little bit at this point. His rebellious streak comes out. But it also demonstrates Ezra's firm conviction in his beliefs. And you see a little bit of his disgust with organized religion having a say and sort of controlling people's lives, which was one reason that Cornell University was founded as a nonsectarian institution open to people of all faiths. He didn't think that religion should have a say in people's lives in that way, although he was a devoutly religious man.
So the church actually told Ezra that he wasn't welcome in the church anymore. And he wrote back and said, I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair, and that my happiness or misery in this life depended on the choice. And for that reason, I never felt myself bound to be dictated in the affair by any higher authority than my own feelings." So he very strongly stated that marrying his wife was the best decision he'd made, and he wasn't going to change that decision based on his faith.
You see a little bit of Ezra's curmudgeonly streak coming out here, which he was known for, if you ask his friends. He was a stubborn man, a little bit of a curmudgeon. But deep down, he genuinely cared about other people's well-being and was very well liked by the early students at Cornell because of that.
One of my favorite stories is actually of an early Cornell student who came to Ezra at his house and asked for an autograph. The student was a little starstruck. This was the founder of the university. And Ezra took the book or piece of paper that the student asked him to sign and wrote, "I don't like to be bothered when I'm at meals." And that was the autograph Ezra gave to the student.
So a little more about Ezra's family. This is the 1820s, 1830s. They really lived through decades of poverty and hardship. Ezra still has not made his fortune. He's working for mills, really not making a lot of money. And he had nine children, and only five of them ended up living to adulthood. So he had a fairly rough life. A number of children died in infancy. And trying to support those five children who made it to adulthood on such a small salary was difficult for him and his wife.
And in 1837, you have the Panic of 1837 when the economy collapses really. A lot of banks closed. And Ezra actually ended up being laid off. So you see a challenge. Entrepreneurs face many challenges in their careers. And this Ezra facing one of his earlier ones. He loses his job, and Beebe actually ends up closing the mills.
So it's at this point that Ezra decides to experiment with a few other projects, like a good entrepreneur. He tried raising sheep, shorthorn cattle. And he actually ran a grocery store for a little while in Ithaca, New York-- tried his hand at a lot of different things. And it's during this period that he really gets interested in agriculture as well.
He had grown up on a farm and done some farming then-- became very active within Tompkins County and the agricultural scene. And he was frequently a judge and a marshall at the Tompkins County Agricultural Fair-- the New York State Fair, as well. He would go to the New York State Fair and serve as a judge there. Eventually he would actually become President of the Tompkins County and New York State Agricultural Societies in the 1850s, a few decades later.
So it's at this point that Ezra's career takes a turn, and he actually purchases the patent rights in 1842 for a plow. And he purchases the patent rights in only two states-- Maine and Georgia. Unfortunately, these two states aren't particularly close to each other. So he had the challenge of traveling between Maine and Georgia to sell this plow. And so he became a salesman at this point, and traveled between the two states, often walking on foot between Maine and Georgia for much of the trip, and was a salesman.
And it's on one of these trips to Maine, actually, that his career really takes off. He walked into a friend's office. FOJ Smith was the man's name. He had met him on a previous trip to Maine. And then the next year he came back and stopped by his office. And Smith was working with a man named Samuel Morse. I assume many of you will recognize that name as the founder of the telegraph, or the inventor of the telegraph.
So Morse had hired Smith to figure out a plow that would lay telegraph cable underground and then bury it back up. The telegraph had just been invented. They were trying to figure out a way to really have it take off as the next big communication industry. And the most important thing was finding a way to connect all of these cities, major cities in the Northeast, with telegraph cable. And Smith was challenged with that aspect of trading a plow to lay the telegraph cable.
And Ezra said, oh, I can do that. No problem. Let me help you out. So Ezra had the fortuitous occasion of walking into the office while Smith was working on it, took on the challenge of building the plow, and successfully created a plow that would lay the cable underground and then bury it back up.
Unfortunately, the wiring of the telegraph cable wasn't particularly effective. And it would actually-- the cable would break. Water would seep in and cause the cable to break between cities. And if the cable breaks, the telegraph wouldn't be successful, of course. So it was Ezra who pointed this out, that there really was an issue with the defective cable, and they needed to do something about it.
And Morse said, OK. We need to halt laying of the telegraph cable and figure this out. But we don't want the press to find out. We don't want newspapers to begin talking about this failing telegraph, and it's not going to work out.
And Ezra had the creative solution of telling one of the workmen who was plowing, laying the cable, to accidentally run it into a rock. So the plow hit a rock. They said the plow had broken and they couldn't lay cable anymore. And that bought them some time to figure out how to deal with this defective wiring.
And it was Ezra who did the research He did a lot of research on magnetism and on the telegraph. And he realized that the best option would be glass-insulated poles-- lay the cable above ground instead of below ground. And so you can thank Ezra for popularizing the telephone pole that is so ubiquitous today. Ezra had the idea of putting the cable on these poles and stringing it throughout the Northeast between cities that way instead of burying it underground.
And so he ended up being hired by Samuel Morse to be his assistant for about $1,000 a year, or $23,000 or so in today's dollars. So another career for Ezra. Now he's working for Morse as the telegraph industry takes off.
Cornell actually has the original telegraph receiver. I believe it's in the College of Engineering. That's the image you'll see right now. That is the first telegraph receiver that received that first message. That was the line-- the message from Baltimore to Washington-- "What hath God wrought?" And it was Ezra who laid that telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington.
And some people might not know this, but if you look at the statue of Ezra Cornell on the Arts Quad, he's actually standing next to that telegraph receiver. It's sort of behind him. But that is the telegraph receiver that was included as part of the statue of honoring our founders, since the telegraph industry had such a big impact on his career.
So the telegraph industry in its early years was really a tumultuous industry. There were a lot of different companies forming once it became successful, a lot of lawsuits between companies. A lot of unreliable service as well, as lines would be broken, issues would come up. And Ezra was very confident, though. Ezra felt that this was the industry that would be successful. He thought it was going to grow and grow, and he was right.
Unfortunately, it caused some struggles for his family because he decided to take most of his pay in stock. So instead of getting paychecks up front to help support his wife and the kids, he was taking the pay in stock. And they were really struggling to get by during this period.
But he left his family destitute for a little period. But he really felt that this was going to pay off in the long run. He took some risk, and it worked out for him. He became the largest stockholder in the telegraph company that he had invested in. And that's when we have the beginning of his fortune beginning to be amassed.
Hiram Sibley comes on the scene at this point-- another name that many of you will recognize, the namesake of Sibley Hall. And it was Sibley who'd founded another telegraph company. It was actually Ezra's chief rival. And Sibley had the bright idea of buying up all these smaller companies, and beginning to combine them and make one big conglomerate to have more reliable service, and just one company to get rid of all this infighting between the telegraph companies.
So he and Ezra actually decide to go into business together. They merge and create one company in 1855 that is named Western Union. And it was Ezra who had picked the name Western Union. And Ezra became the largest stockholder in this new company, which is a name many of us are familiar with. So the telegraph takes off. Ezra begins to amass a fortune in stock in Western Union. And we begin to see the beginnings of Cornell University on the horizon at this point.
So it's during this period in his life Ezra begins to have a little more personal success, a little more career success. And he dabbles in politics. He'd always been interested in public service, been very involved in this community. And he had been affiliated with the Whig party and a strong proponent of the Whig party early on. And he often wrote about the curse of slavery, as he called it.
So when the Republican Party was formed by a large number of-- sort of an anti-slavery coalition put together the Republican Party, Ezra was one of the first people to join this new party. And he actually was a delegate to the first National Republican Convention in 1856. So Ezra was actually in attendance at Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. I see a photo there of the inaugural ceremony. And Ezra was very proud to be part of this moment in history. He wrote in his diary, "I got near enough to hear most of the president's address, which was forcibly delivered."
In 1860, Ezra runs for the New York State Legislature. And he ends up chairing the Committee on Agriculture because of his experience farming and being involved in the state agriculture scene. And in 1863, he moves from the Assembly to the Senate. He runs for the New York State Senate and joins that. So you see him getting more and more involved in politics on a state level beyond just Tompkins County, and on the national level with his interest in Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.
Of course, this is the time of the Civil War beginning in 1861. And Ezra, having a Quaker upbringing, was very interested in peace. He emphasized peace throughout his life. And he wrote, "It is wrong to fight in any way. And 9/10 of the fighting between nations is wrong." And he wrote this in a letter to his son, Alonzo Cornell, who incidentally, would go on to be governor of New York State himself.
And he asked his son not to become one of, quote, "an agent in the hands of the government for taking the lives of his fellow beings." He didn't think people should be fighting. He didn't approve of the Civil War in any way.
But he was active in the war effort, and he actually headed a citizen's committee to organize aid for the dependents of volunteers in Tompkins County. And he personally subscribed $1,000 of his own money to support the war effort in that way. His wife, Mary Ann Cornell, was actually the president of the Ladies Volunteer Aid Association in Tompkins County during the Civil War.
And Ezra traveled to the front. He traveled to the battlefront with medical supplies to deliver to troops. He would visit hospitals, deliver-- visit camps, specifically, those where troops from Tompkins County were based. And he ended up getting caught in the middle of the first Battle of Bull Run on one of these trips and saw fighting up front. But he was very-- he felt strongly-- although, he didn't agree with the fighting, he felt strongly about supporting the effort of the Union and delivering medical supplies.
Despite his involvement in politics and his involvement in the Civil War aiding the troops, he wasn't satisfied yet with his philanthropy, and he still wanted to do more for his community. And you begin to see really has a strong interest in philanthropy at this point.
So this is when we returned to that cyphering book I mentioned earlier. And it was the book that Ezra had kept noticing as a young child about his every bit of income and every expense. And he returned to this book at this point and wrote in it again. He hadn't used it in years.
But he pulled it back out, and he wrote, "In 1844, there was a balance of perhaps a couple thousand dollars on the credit side. In 1854, the contest was a doubtful one, and a debt with which I was then encumbered amounting to $50,000 would probably have swept the board if the game had been stopped at that period.
But the contest has been continued, with increasing success for the side of [? gain. ?] And at the present period, February 1, 1860, that mountain of debt has mostly been paid at the rate of 100 cents on $1.00, with 7% interest added. And a yearly income of $15,000 seems to be a reliable guarantee that the credit side has won the victory." And he wrote that in 1860.
So he's beginning to get involved in politics of that period, the telegraph industry. Western Union had been formed in 1855. So it's been five years of his involvement in Western Union. And he's beginning to make a considerable sum of money, despite the fact that only 10 years earlier he was in a huge amount of debt.
And then he added, again, "The favorable change indicated above which promised to give a favorable turn to the lifelong loss and [? gain ?] account continues. The yearly income, which I realized this year, will exceed $100,000. My last quarterly dividend [? on ?] stock in the Western Union Telegraph Company was $35,000-- July 20, 1864. The dividend for October quarter will be as large. My greatest care now is how to spend this large income to do the most good to those who are properly dependent on me, to the poor, and to posterity. Ezra Cornell."
And so you see there, he wants to do the most good for society. He wants to do the most good for those who depended on him. And he has this fortune, and he is not quite sure what to do with it. And he really wants to support his values of hard work and of education-- two things that had been really keynotes throughout his life. And those are the things he wants to really focus on.
So you begin to see early elements of this philanthropy. In Tompkins County, Ezra actually created the Cornell Public Library, which is the predecessor of today's Tompkins County Public Library System. And that was really his first act of major philanthropy. He built the library in 1863, just a couple of years before Cornell University is founded.
And he also got involved with the Cascadilla Sanitarium, which was a project of a local nurse who wanted to create a facility that would be used as an educational facility for nurses, and also sort of a convalescent home for the ill, though it never ended up taking off. And the building, as many of you know, ended up becoming Cornell's first dormitory. It was never actually used as the sanitarium that had been hoped for. But he did invest in that and was one of the early trustees for the proposed Cascadilla Sanitarium.
He wrote during this period, "I have five children. It would not benefit them to-- it would not benefit them to give them more than $100,000 each. Thus, less than half is disposed of. The library will probably absorb $60,000. But supposing it to go to $75,000. What shall I do with the balance? I hope to do much good with it, but I really don't know how to dispose of it in a will so as to do the good with it that I should desire to do."
So he has a quandary. He's not sure what to do with the rest of his money. He's given the library. He's helped a number of smaller causes. But what do I do with my fortune? I don't want to give it to my children. They should make their own way in the world.
And it's while in Europe, actually, in 1863, he attends an international agricultural expedition-- exposition. And he writes, "Inquire what the effect of large endowments are upon colleges. How many graduates do they send out, et cetera?" And this is after a visit to Oxford. So begins to think about universities and colleges, and maybe he could have some involvement in that.
And it's around this time, the late 1850s, actually, that Ezra purchases a farm in Tompkins County, which is the present-day Arts Quad and sort of West Campus-- the 300-acre farm called Forest Home that he purchased in 1857. So you have this idea of he's interested in education. He's beginning-- the wheels are turning in his head. And he has some money, and he has a farm.
And that's when the Morrill Land-Grant Act is passed-- 1862. And this Act-- I won't get into the details of it. But basically, the US federal government-- this is the first piece of federal education legislation. It gives land to every state in the United States to be used to create a college or university that would teach agriculture, mechanic arts, or engineering and military tactics, since this is during the Civil War.
So that, combined with Ezra's philanthropy and interest, it was really the perfect combination of timing and people. And that was the story of how Ezra Cornell really made his money and founded Cornell University. So I'll stop right here. Many of you know the early days of Cornell and the story behind the founding. And I'll stop here towards the close of Ezra's life and see if there are any questions from the audience.
TOMMY BRUCE: So Corey, while we're waiting for the questions to come up, there's one-- the founder's statement about I would found-- I-- thank you. I would found an institution, et cetera, et cetera, for any person, any study, that it might have been actually said by Andrew White and not by him. So can you clarify that mystery for us?
COREY EARLE: Sure. So I'm sure many of you are familiar with the motto of the university. "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." And that's credited to Ezra Cornell, and really set the vision for Cornell University as "any person in any study," which were the two incredibly unique and really radical elements of Cornell's founding, which we didn't get into in this discussion.
But some people have actually suggested that the quote was too eloquent for Ezra to have said it. They thought maybe it was Andrew Dickson White, as the more classically trained scholar, the more educated of the two founders who said it. But I think most historians actually agree that it was Ezra who said it.
And the reason is that Andrew Dickson White would never have been as unrealistic to say "any person in any study." He was more of a realist, less of the visionary with Cornell's founding, and would have known that it's impossible to have any person in any study, while Ezra was the visionary who really set the founding ideals for the university and said, no. We should have a school where anything can be taught, anyone can attend. And that was what he believed in. So I would say Ezra did say the motto, and it wasn't White.
TOMMY BRUCE: So the motto really does, in fact, reflect the life and times of Ezra Cornell. Tell us a little bit about the relationship between these two gentlemen and what was that like? What does history tell us about them?
COREY EARLE: So Andrew Dickson White and Ezra Cornell were very different individuals. And they actually met in the New York State Legislature. Ezra was one of the oldest members of the legislature. White was one of the youngest members. And Ezra, as I mentioned, was chairing the Committee on Agriculture. White was chairing the Committee on Education. And these were two areas of the legislature that really didn't interact that much-- education and agriculture.
So it was the passing of the Morrill Act that really brought the two together. Because you have this act that's to establish colleges and universities, but it's to teach agriculture. The Morrill Act was passed really because there was a need for practical education in the United States, a need for agricultural education since farming was such a major industry.
So the two come together during this discussion. And they realized that Ezra has all of this money that he's interested in giving to a good cause, something he supports. And we know he's certainly interested in education.
And you have White, who was considered one of the most educated people in the country. He'd been educated throughout Europe, a graduate of Yale. He'd been a professor at the University of Michigan and taught a little bit at Yale.
And he had this vision of a university that was the quintessential American university, that brought together elements of the classical schools like Yale and Harvard, but also elements from the German universities, particularly the laboratory model and less of recitation and memorization, but more discussion and real learning with faculty.
So he wanted to combine all of these elements into the first American university, into this unique university. And so it was his vision of that, along with Ezra's real interest in creating a legacy with his philanthropy and with his wealth, and doing something for the good of society that brought the two of them together.
TOMMY BRUCE: So one of the personal observations I've noted when coming up to upper state New York is why-- some people always ask me why is Cornell in Tompkins County? Is it right to remind people that in the 19th century, actually upstate New York was an economic-- it was a happening place economically and otherwise.
COREY EARLE: It's true. You have-- the Erie Canal is actually connected to go through Cayuga Lake. And you have a canal system. You have the gorges in Ithaca, which led to a lot of mills and industry really growing in that sense. So it was a budding industrial community.
You have a lot of businesses, like Ithaca Gun, for instance, that had a long career-- founded around in the 1800s. So it really was a pretty-- less of a-- it wasn't just Cornell in Ithaca. It wasn't an empty community until Cornell came along. It was a vibrant community before the university was founded, certainly.
TOMMY BRUCE: So when the first class gathered here-- and I'm waiting for some questions to come up. But let me just ask this question. It was a very large class that convened in 1868?
COREY EARLE: It was. So the university was such a unique sort of different kind of university, that it got a lot of press-- some negative, some positive. So when it opened in 1868, it took them a few years after the sign of the charter to build the buildings and recruit faculty. But the first class arrived in 1868. And it was the largest entering class of any American University up to that point-- 412 students, which today doesn't seem that large. But it was a big group for that day and age.
TOMMY BRUCE: So I have now two questions. I have John Weir, who's raised his head. And so it would be-- I would love to hear your question. John, go ahead. And then after that, I have Stuart Mitchell, who's written something in to us. John?
AUDIENCE: So this is a very simple question. But in 1864, what was $100,000 worth in today's dollars?
COREY EARLE: That is a good question. I actually don't know what the exchange rate on that would be. But I would guess it would put Ezra in the millionaire category in today's dollars.
TOMMY BRUCE: So we're going to try to see if we can look that up right away and give you the answer. In the meantime, Stuart Mitchell writes, "Pathstone Corporation, formerly known as Rural Opportunities, Inc. administrative-- their administrative headquarters is housed in the Hiram Sibley mansion in Rochester. We have done some research on the Hiram. I'd be interested in knowing more about the relationship between Ezra and Hiram.
COREY EARLE: That's true. That's an excellent question. As I'd mentioned, they were actually competitors. So the beginning of their relationship wasn't a particularly friendly one is my understanding. But when Western Union was formed, and the companies came together as a conglomerate, they began working together. They both agreed that really merging the telegraph companies together instead of all these smaller companies infighting was the way to go.
And Ezra actually convinced Sibley to believe in sort of these unique educational ideals that Ezra had, along with Andrew Dixon White. And Sibley bought into this radical university idea-- the school that had any person in any study, and became a major philanthropist and a major benefactor in the university, as did his son. Both members of the Sibley family helped fund the early engineering college, and actually created the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering. It was its own college in the university's early days, and is now part of the College of Engineering as a whole.
TOMMY BRUCE: So while we're waiting for some more questions, I just want to have you paint for us-- going back to this inaugural moment of the university. What was it like? Can you describe what inauguration day might have been like? What happened? Who came?
COREY EARLE: Sure.
TOMMY BRUCE: Were there political leaders who came to Ithaca? Tell us a little bit about that.
COREY EARLE: Well, that's an interesting point actually. Because the governor of New York declined to come. And one of the reasons was the amount of negative press that Cornell was receiving. So the governor wasn't sure if it would be a good idea to be spotted here, even though this was the Land Grant University of New York State.
TOMMY BRUCE: And it was-- he was the same governor who signed the papers, right?
COREY EARLE: I believe it was. I think it was Reuben Fenton, the one who signed the charter. This is towards the end of his term in office. And he decided that maybe it wasn't the best idea to be there. And I believe he sent his Lieutenant Governor instead.
The ceremony was actually held downtown. There wasn't much on campus at this point. They built Morrill Hall and White Hall, which were called South and North Hall at the time. And so actually, the inaugural ceremony for the launching of this new endeavor was held at the Cornell Public Library, this building that Ezra had given a couple of years earlier as the community's public library. So that was the big grand hall where everyone gathered for this inaugural ceremony.
TOMMY BRUCE: And so at the time, this was-- how would you describe this in the life of Tompkins County? What was going on at that time?
COREY EARLE: I think the community was thrilled to have this new university. It was certainly bringing a lot of attention to the community. And as we know today, Cornell is a vibrant part of the Ithaca community and a major employer, et cetera. So I think Ithacans were aware that this was the start of something big.
And you actually-- there was a book published a couple of years before Cornell was founded, and it was actually dedicated to Ezra Cornell. And it mentions the grand halls that he will build here. It was after the plans for the university were in place, but the University itself wasn't in place. So it's interesting that an author of a book about Ithaca mentions and dedicates the book to Ezra for having such an impact on the community and his philanthropy-- creating the public library system. He was very well respected.
TOMMY BRUCE: So it was a moment of hope. But as Renee Fondacaro writes here to you-- says she has a question. And the question is, why was there so much negative press about the university's founding?
COREY EARLE: So the negative press stemmed from the university having these radical ideas about it. And it's really that motto-- the "any person in any study" element. So I tend to break down any person into five different pieces.
One of them is any gender. Cornell was really one of the first major institutions to be coeducational. There were small women's schools. But most institutions were men only. There were a couple schools that had coeducation, but certainly none on the scale and scope of Cornell University.
Second element was ethnic diversity. Any person referred to people of any race. And this is the close of the Civil War, so certainly a very radical concept in that sense as well.
Third element-- any nationality. We had a lot of students-- international students coming to Cornell in the early years. It was called the most cosmopolitan university in the United States because they had such a large international student population.
And the fourth element was really the most radical one that got the most negative attention. And that was Cornell was a non-sectarian university-- any religion. It was open to students who were of no faith, or Jewish students, Muslim students, Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian. It didn't matter what faith you were, you were welcome at Cornell University.
And this really wasn't the case for most institutions at that time. Most of the other major universities had Boards of Trustees that were all of one particular sect or faith. And the student bodies were the same way.
So a lot of prominent clergymen actually accused Cornell University of being a godless institution, or the heathens on the hill sort of thing. And it got a lot of attention in major newspapers and from major clergymen telling don't send your children to the godless institution. Don't send your children to Cornell.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well, to this-- around this point, Frank Dawson points out that many years ago he came across a letter in the archives dated sometime in mid-1800s from a colored student inquiring about possible admissions to Cornell. The response from Ezra was encouraging, stating that he would consider admissions of a qualified colored student, even if all the other students would leave as a result. Can you share some more thoughts about that?
COREY EARLE: That's a true story. Yeah. Ezra did receive letters when the university was founded from students of color saying, are we welcome at this new university? And he was always very much in support of that. The first Black students arrived at Cornell in the 1870s and were incorporated into student life.
And, as many of you probably know, Alpha Phi Alpha was founded at Cornell University, which was the first Greek letter intercollegiate fraternity for African-Americans founded at Cornell in 1906. They celebrated their Centennial here just a few years ago-- five years ago. So that was an important element of the university from the founding as well.
TOMMY BRUCE: So a little parenthesis here. The question about the $100,000 in 1864 would be worth something like $1.2-- so Chris Marshall, using the GDP, comes to $1,180,000. And Jason Dupuy also did a calculation. He came out with $1,377,000 and thereabouts. So it was a considerable sum of money.
COREY EARLE: It was. And when the university was founded, Ezra actually gave a half million dollars of his own money. He gave $500,000 to launch the university, along with the land grant funds. So that was really the [? starting ?] [INAUDIBLE].
TOMMY BRUCE: In those days, that was serious.
COREY EARLE: That was a big chunk of change.
TOMMY BRUCE: And it allowed for this realization. So going to-- can you sort take us through a little bit the years after the first decade, and tell us a little bit about what it might have been like to be at Cornell in 1875?
COREY EARLE: Sure. So Ezra actually didn't live much past the founding of the university, which is unfortunate. The university students first arrived in 1868. The inauguration was in October 1868. And there wasn't much on campus at that point. You have a couple of buildings. But basically, it's still a farm.
You have cows roaming around the campus on the Arts Quad. It was basically still a cow pasture. Really no sidewalks or anything like that-- muddy paths between buildings. So it wasn't the prettiest looking campus. Students talked about how the doors still hadn't arrived on some buildings when they got there.
So it was a work in progress in those early years. And it really struggled during the 1870s to make ends meet. They were having trouble paying faculty. Faculty salaries were very low. And basically, most of the early faculty were really volunteering a lot of their time to make Cornell happen because they believed in this unique university where any person could attend.
And then the "any study element," meaning that practical education was just as important as classical education. And all academic subjects were considered equals at Cornell. So these early faculty really believed in that, and were here because they supported it, not because they weren't making much money.
Ezra passed away in 1874, really towards the peak of these struggles for the university financially. And also, in the 1870s, really a revival of the negative press Cornell was receiving specifically over nonsectarianism. It's interesting to note that when Sage Hall was built, it was built as the Sage College for Women. It was the first dormitory for female students on campus. And this is in the early 1870s.
And Ezra gave a speech at the laying of the cornerstone for this building-- the first real dormitory on campus. And he said in the speech that he was placing a letter in the cornerstone that would tell why Cornell University would fail-- why the experiment would fail, if it were to fail. And so recognizing that these were sort of dark times for the university. And perhaps it was facing some serious difficulties.
And the letter wasn't open for decades afterward-- really over a century afterward. And they opened the cornerstone in the 1990s when Sage Hall was being renovated for the Johnson School of Business. And they got the letter out. And everyone always assumed that it was about coeducation because this building was built for coeducation.
And when they got out the letter and read it, Ezra was actually talking about nonsectarianism again, and addressing these concerns that kept coming up in the early years about Cornell being a godless institution. And students there were immoral because they didn't have mandatory chapel services, for instance. Cornell had one of the first voluntary chapel services. So Ezra was so concerned about it that he actually wrote the letter for the cornerstone talking about nonsectarian perhaps being the downfall of the university.
TOMMY BRUCE: So let's-- there's-- Chad Cape here has a question referring to this as a [? sent ?] [? event. ?] And as a result, can we talk about the first or other most significant businesses that have come out of Cornell research and technologies? When did the first technology emerge from Cornell that we-- in the way we think of it today?
COREY EARLE: Well, I think one example would be if you look at the early Electrical Engineering Department. Cornell had the first Department of Electrical Engineering in the country. And it was an individual, Professor William Anthony, who was leading in that department-- one of the first real brilliant professors in the country in the field of electrical engineering, which was this growing field.
And it was Anthony who built a galvanometer, an early generator on campus. And actually, he rigged electric lights in Sage Chapel in a belfry. There no longer is a belfry there. But the original Sage Chapel had this tower. And he rigged up electric lights in it. And they are believed to be some of the first outdoor electric lights in the country, if not the world.
And the story goes that there weren't any other electric lights at the time. So students-- individuals living downtown in the community could look up at the hill, and they'd see this little beacon of light from the campus in the Sage Chapel belfry. And that was really a pioneering innovation that came out of Cornell. You have early innovations in electrical engineering and electricity.
TOMMY BRUCE: So taking that same theme, maybe can you just sort of go 50 years hence and so forth, and just what are some of the other big inventions or ideas that have come from Cornell in the past 146 years?
COREY EARLE: Well, certainly our alumni have been pioneers in a variety of different fields. And we have a lot of really interesting inventors and innovators. You have folks like Willis Carrier, an engineering student in the class of 1901, who became the father of modern air conditioning-- really the inventor of air conditioning as we know it today. And the business was based in Syracuse, which is where we have the Carrier Dome named after him.
You have folks like Wilson Greatbatch, who helped develop the implantable pacemaker by developing-- working on the battery that would go in the pacemaker to make it implantable. Looking at the attendance list for this event, you actually have folks like Jeff Hawkins, for instance, who was the inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Palm Treo, I believe. So people have been pioneers, inventors in a lot of different fields.
TOMMY BRUCE: So John Weir has had his hand up. And I'd just like to give him another chance to ask us a question. John, are you online, and can you ask your question, please?
AUDIENCE: Sure. The question was Ezra actually a CEO or chairman of Western Union? Or what role did he play in addition to being a major stockholder?
COREY EARLE: I don't believe he actually held a role like CEO or president. I believe he was just a major investor and a stockholder, and wasn't involved with the day-to-day management of the business. But I'm not entirely sure on that. I think he was keeping busy with his political interests and sort of his involvement in the community and agriculture and farming, and sort of just investing in the telegraph industry once he finished laying the telegraph lines.
TOMMY BRUCE: So much of-- Corey, so much of history resides in these books and these remnants of these sort of messages that come to us from rare manuscripts and so forth. Tell us a little bit about your experience in Kroch Library and what that was like. And just share it with us. And also, whether people can come and participate in this pleasure.
COREY EARLE: I actually was hired to work in Kroch Library in the Rare and Manuscript Collections as a student. It was the summer after my freshman year. And I met with the university archivist, Elaine Engst, and said, Cornell has such a fascinating history. How can I get involved? What can I do to help out here? And she hired me on the spot. And I worked there for three years as a student. And then after graduating, I was hired to work there full-time.
And it really is a fantastic resource at the university that I think a lot of people never take the chance to go visit. There's always a great exhibit on display. For instance, I believe the current exhibit is on legendary animals, like the Cornell bear, for instance. But also, animals like the pig from Charlotte's Web and the spiders from Charlotte's Web written by Cornellian E.B. White, class of 1921.
But the university archives is the repository for the university's treasures and most valuable objects-- everything from the Gettysburg Address, written in Abraham Lincoln's own handwriting, to Copernicus manuscripts, and Darwin first editions, and a phenomenal amount of material, including all of the early Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dixon White papers and Cornell's archives itself.
So I strongly encourage alumni to stop by and check out when they're in town. It's underneath Olin Library. If you go to the back of Olin Library and down two floors, you'll find yourself in Kroch Library and take a look at some of the treasures.
TOMMY BRUCE: So when you-- what was your favorite manuscript or document from the Cornell and Andrew White collection?
COREY EARLE: Oh, that's a good question. I'm particularly fond of that letter in the Sage Hall cornerstone. I think that's a really neat story, and how it took over 100 years for us to really find out what Ezra meant when he put that letter in the cornerstone. And it's not often that you have a chance to go back and rewrite history.
You look at some of the histories of Cornell that had been written in the interim period, and they're all assuming that it was about coeducation. And historians were wrong. And it wasn't until the 1990s that we realized that. So it's neat to have-- be able to have a say in what the history was when you go back and learn something new.
TOMMY BRUCE: Now, obviously, the history of Cornell University is something that is a passion for you, but it's also something that's attracted a lot of attention. You are teaching a course at the moment. Can you tell us all a little bit about that and what that experience has been like?
COREY EARLE: It's really been a blast. This semester, I developed a syllabus for a one-credit course in American Studies to be taught on the history of Cornell University. It's something-- a project that I've been thinking about for a couple of years. And I developed the syllabus-- an early version-- a couple of years ago.
So working with a friend of mine who's a graduate student in history, Tom Balcerski, who graduated from Cornell 19-- or in 2005, we put together this course and have over 100 students enrolled in it. And it meets once a week. And each week, we take a topic from Cornell history.
So one week we talked about any person and why that was so unique. One week we talked about athletics at Cornell, and the great history of Cornell athletics and the Big Red. One week we talked about unrest and activism, and sort of the legacy of student activism at Cornell, looking at the 1950s and the 1960s. So it's really been neat to get a new generation of Cornellians interested and really educated and aware of the role Cornell played in modern higher education, and who these names are on the buildings that you see around campus every day.
TOMMY BRUCE: So when you-- I've been-- as I listen to you I'm thinking that when you were here as a student, you probably derived a certain idea of what Cornell was about. And how has that changed over time, both when you were in Kroch Library, but now that you are teaching. Are you seeing Cornell in a different way?
COREY EARLE: I think so. You see Cornell from a different perspective each role that you have here. So as a student, growing up as the son of a faculty member and an alumnus, I got to see one perspective of Cornell. Then as a student, then as a staff member. And now, in some ways, as an instructor.
You get to see all different sides of Cornell, and how everyone really plays a role, from the students, to the staff, to the faculty, to the alumni. Everyone plays a part in the university. And each sort of constituency has had a major role over the years in shaping what Cornell is today.
Certainly, alumni have played a huge role in that, which is one of the reasons that we have alumni elected trustees on the Board of Trustees, which was an innovation that not many schools had done when Cornell did it. I think Harvard might have been the only other school with an alumni-elected trustee when Cornell started doing that.
TOMMY BRUCE: So, I mean, as we have a few minutes left here, I'd be very curious to know what you think-- since we're talking to the Cornell entrepreneur network, members of the network, what are the lessons in the life of Ezra and the creation of Western Union, so forth, and so on-- what are the lessons or the thoughts that you think people should go away with after this conversation?
COREY EARLE: Well, there's a quote that was from a speech actually given for the 100th anniversary of Western Union in the 1950s. And a speech was given about Ezra Cornell at that event. And it said, "So long as we continue to build leaders with the high principles, strong faith, and rugged courage of a Cornell, we need have no fear for the future." And I think that that's a neat quote summing up Ezra Cornell's legacy.
Certainly, the attributes that he kept with them throughout his life were persistence. He had a lot of struggles with a lot of different careers, and tried his hand at a lot of things. But he kept going. He persisted in his beliefs, a strong conviction in his beliefs.
Innovation was keynote throughout his life. He was always-- he believed in trying something new and different and wouldn't just go with how things had always been done, from the telegraph and the plow, to creating this new kind of university. Innovation was a big part of it.
Certainly, values of education and philanthropy were also major aspects of Ezra's life, and really emphasizing giving back to his community, and helping others out, and supporting education, which was so important in the United States and still is today.
TOMMY BRUCE: Speaking of supporting education, Stuart Mitchell, I see, had asked a question wanting to know whether Western Union makes significant contributions to Cornell through their own philanthropic efforts?
COREY EARLE: I actually don't know that. Certainly, people involved with Western Union, like the Sibleys were major benefactors in the early days of the University. But I don't know much more beyond that.
TOMMY BRUCE: So do you do you ask yourself from time to time what Ezra would think of the university today?
COREY EARLE: I do. I think Ezra would be proud. It's really unfortunate that he didn't live to see the university to really become successful. When he passed away in 1874, it was struggling. And I think he'd be really pleased to see how far it's come, and how it's really lived up to his founding vision of any person in any study.
It's really epitomized what he wanted to achieve. And it continues to embody those ideals with the different colleges, different fields of study, the diverse student body. I think he'd be really happy if he stopped by campus some day and checked it out, sat in on a class or two.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well, you know, one of-- just from a personal perspective, when-- having gone through the last two years, and the whole effort that was called-- branded Reimagining Cornell, in the wake of the 2008. One of the aspects of the conversation that happened on this campus that touched me most was the durability of Ezra Cornell's founding thought, and people's commitment to what they thought his purpose was, even at a time when the heat of the moment and the need to move on could have led to very different conversations. So it's very interesting to see how strong 146 years later that pull is.
COREY EARLE: That's true. Ezra knew what economic hardship was like. And he knew that sometimes you had to make sacrifices and look at the long-term goal to keep your vision going. So I think he would understand the challenges Cornell is faced with the reimagining. But I think he would be pleased with the decisions that have been made, and understand that we have to-- sometimes you need to change to continue to be successful and grow. And he knows that Cornell's administrators have the best interests of the university at heart.
TOMMY BRUCE: Now, talking about moving on and growing and so forth and so on. Now, we are sort of now, as of today, four years from now, we'll be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Cornell University. And everybody will know how to say the word sesquicentennial by that.
COREY EARLE: That's right. Spelling is the trick one.
TOMMY BRUCE: And there are a lot of work. I just think it's a good time to let people know that there's already committees. And people are working-- students, faculty, and starting to think about how we will celebrate and commemorate that moment.
But Corey, I have it that you're working on a book for young people-- children, maybe. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
COREY EARLE: Sure. I'm part of a project actually being led by a colleague of mine in Alumni Affairs and Development, Paula Maguire, who helps with these webinars. And it was her idea to create something that would help educate more people about Ezra Cornell's unique life. And people should know about Ezra just as much as they know about folks like Samuel Morse and other inventors and innovators.
So her idea was create a children's book. Find a way to get the word out there. Raise awareness about Ezra Cornell and his values. So we've started this project. And the goal is, hopefully, to have some final product by the sesquicentennial, and to help us get the word out about who Ezra was, and why he was important.
TOMMY BRUCE: One of the-- as Vice President for University Communications, this is one of the things I worry about is how we're going to tell this story along the way. And I find that Cornellians are more than happy to stand up and be counted. I am Cornell, and there you are. And there's going to be a lot of these efforts, these storytelling efforts. And congratulations for taking that initiative.
I can't help but notice that Stuart Mitchell has asked that we provide your contact information. Because he is not only very impressed, but he was also taught by your father through Lead New York. And that's something-- a moment of pride for him as well. So maybe you might just give your email so people can reach you.
COREY EARLE: Sure. The best way to reach me is by email. And my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. C-O-R-E-Y dot E-A-R-L-E. Or you can email me at my net ID, email@example.com, whichever is easier to remember. Create-- pretty easy to remember. So I'd love to hear from anyone who wants to talk about Cornell history.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well, so, I mean, this is-- I'm going to slip this one under the door almost. Chad Cape is saying, I believe Ezra Cornell was involved in the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company tying Buffalo to Milwaukee. Do you know if these activities in Wisconsin had any tie to the Wisconsin pinelands being used in funding the early days of Cornell University?
COREY EARLE: I don't think there was a direct connection with the Wisconsin pinelands. So to fill other folks in, the Wisconsin pinelands were the lands given to New York State as part of the land grant. There wasn't land in New York State to help them out, so they were given land in Wisconsin that could be used-- the timber sold off, et cetera, to help fund this university in New York State.
But-- so Ezra did a lot of work going to Wisconsin and checking out the land. And there's actually a community there named Cornell in Wisconsin. But I don't think the telegraph involvement there necessarily was connected to it, though I could be wrong. I'm not positive on that.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well, Corey, thank you very much for this presentation.
COREY EARLE: Thank you.
TOMMY BRUCE: I think you will all agree with me that Corey is masterful at this, and we should have him back on a regular basis to keep on reminding of this history of this important institution.
Thank you to all of you for participating. Without you, this would be a one-way conversation. And we're delighted that you're here, and look forward to meeting you on another webinar or on campus soon.
In the meantime, I'm Tommy Bruce. Thank you for joining us.
COREY EARLE: Thanks.
COMPUTER VOICE: Audio recording for this meeting has ended.
TOMMY BRUCE: Well done.
SPEAKER: Thank you. That was awesome.
TOMMY BRUCE: You're very good.
COREY EARLE: Thanks.
SPEAKER: I learned new--
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On April 27, the anniversary of Cornell's Founding Day, we inspired you with the journey of Ezra Cornell, Cornell University's first entrepreneur. A Renaissance man of many talents and interests, our alma mater's founder tried his luck at many careers, from carpenter and farmer to businessman and telegraph pioneer to politician and philanthropist. How did Ezra make his money and what challenges did he face as a young entrepreneur?
Corey Ryan Earle '07, Cornell's resident historian, led an informative and entertaining discussion about the man who "would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."