Ezra Cornell (January 11, 1807 – December 9, 1874) was an American businessman and, with Andrew Dickson White, was the founder of Cornell University.
He was born in Westchester County, New York, the son of a potter, Elijah Cornell, and was raised near DeRuyter, New York. He was a first cousin, five times removed of Benjamin Franklin on his maternal grandmother's side. He was also a cousin of Paul Cornell, the founder of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Having traveled extensively as a carpenter in New York State, Ezra, upon first setting eyes on Cayuga Lake and Ithaca, decided Ithaca would be his future home.
Read "True and Firm": Biography of Ezra Cornell, Founder of the Cornell University, free from Cornell University. After settling in at Ithaca, Ezra quickly went to work proving himself as a carpenter. Colonel Beebe took notice of the industrious young man and made him the manager of his mill at Fall Creek.
Ezra Cornell was a birthright Quaker, but was later disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the faith to a "world's woman," a Methodist by the name of Mary Ann Wood. Ezra and Mary Ann were married March 19, 1831, in Dryden, New York.
On February 24, 1832, Ezra Cornell wrote the following response to his expulsion from The Society of Friends due to his marriage to Mary Ann Wood:
"I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair and that my happyness or misery in this life depended on the choice…"
The young and growing family needed more income than could be earned as manager of Beebe's Mills. So, having purchased rights in a patent for a new type of plow, Ezra began what would be decades of travelling away from Ithaca. His territories for sales of the plow were the states of Maine and Georgia. His plan was to sell in Maine in the summer and the milder Georgia in the winter. With limited means, what transported Ezra between the two states were his own two feet.
Happening into the offices of the Maine Farmer in 1842, Ezra saw an acquaintance of his, one F.O.J. Smith, bent over some plans for a "scraper" as Smith called it. Smith had purchased a share of the telegraph patent held by Samuel F.B. Morse, and was attempting to devise a way of burying the telegraph lines in the ground in lead pipe. Ezra's knowledge of plows was put to the test and Ezra devised a special kind of plow that would dig a 2 1/2 foot ditch, lay the pipe and telegraph wire in the ditch and cover it back up as it went. Later it was found that condensation in the pipes and poor insulation of the wires impeded the electrical current on the wires and so hanging the wire from telegraph poles became the accepted method.
Ezra made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse, having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the telegraph poles between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, as the first ever telegraph line of substance in the U.S. After joining with Morse, Cornell supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee. He earned a substantial fortune as a founder of the Western Union company.
Cornell was a Republican member of both the New York State Senate and Assembly.
Cornell retired from Western Union and turned his attention to philanthropy. He endowed the Cornell Library, a public library for the citizens of Ithaca. A lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture, he saw great opportunity in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to found a university that would teach practical subjects, as opposed to the classics as favored by more traditional institutions. Andrew Dickson White helped secure the new institution's status as New York's land grant university, and Cornell University was granted a charter through their efforts in 1865.
Ezra Cornell entered the railroad business, but fared poorly due to the Panic of 1873. He began construction of a palatial Ithaca mansion, Llenroc (Cornell spelled in reverse) to replace his farmhouse, Forest Home, but died before it was completed. Llenroc was maintained by Cornell's heirs for several decades until being sold to the local chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity, which occupies it to this day; Forest Home was sold to the Delta Tau Delta chapter and later demolished. Cornell is interred in Sage Chapel on Cornell's campus, along with Daniel Willard Fiske and Jennie McGraw.
A prolific letter writer, Ezra corresponded with a great many people and would write dozens of letters each week. This was due partly to his wide travelling, and also to the many business associates he maintained during his years as an entrepreneur and later as a politician and university founder. Cornell University has made the approximately 30,000 letters in the Cornell Correspondence available online.
His eldest son, Alonzo B. Cornell was later governor of New York. The eldest lineal descendent of Cornell is granted a life seat on Cornell University's Board of Trustees, currently Ezra Cornell IV.
In 1990, G. David Low, graduate of Cornell University and Space Shuttle astronaut, took with him into outer space a pair of tan silk socks worn by Ezra Cornell on his wedding day in 1831.