Ezra Cornell (1807-1874) was born in Westchester Landing, New York to a large Quaker family. When he left home at 18, he began working as a machinist, settling in Ithaca in 1828. Here he became the manager of the Beebe flour and plaster mills. The mills were sold in 1841, and Cornell began working with Samuel Morse to build a telegraph line from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington. Cornell began focusing on developing the telegraph and eventually helped form the Western Union Telegraph Company. Cornell remained the director of the company for the rest of his life.
Western Union made Cornell a fortune. He began using this money to serve the community. In addition to helping found Cornell University, he built a public library for Ithaca. Cornell designed his namesake university to offer excellent liberal arts as well as agricultural and technical studies. Unfortunately, Cornell nearly went bankrupt during the Panic of 1873. Despite its name, the Panic was more than a temporary period of financial instability, but a global economic depression brought about by an imbalance between supply and demand and hundreds of banks becoming unable to repay its depositors.