1865 – 1937
Born in Sheldon, Minnesota, Hugh Lincoln Cooper was 16 when he undertook his first engineering project, a 40-foot bridge across a creek that ran through a farm on which he was working a summer job. The rock-and-timber structure was still in service 50 years later. Cooper's father, a millwright, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and disapproved of his decision to become an engineer. His mother was more understanding. After he graduated from Rushford High School, she helped him run away from home to take an apprenticeship with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, where he was assigned to build bridges in Wisconsin.
Although he had no formal technical training, the skills he acquired through self-study and practical field work were such that when a bridge project at Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, appeared to be failing, he was given full charge and went on to complete the troubled construction. In 1891, Cooper became interested in hydroelectric power and left bridge-building to learn about the construction and equipment used in harnessing water to generate electricity. He took a position with a firm in Dayton, Ohio, Stillwell, Bierce, and Smith Vaille, that built water wheels and installed power plants. Eventually, he constructed power plants at Jamaica, West Indies, and Ellenville and Dolgeville, New York. He then spent three years designing and building a power plant for the Sao Paulo Tramway, Light & Power Company, in Brazil.
On returning to the U.S., he became a hydraulic engineer on his own, eventually forming the Hugh L. Cooper Company. He was then ready to tackle the seemingly impossible—a plant to harness the raging Horseshoe Rapids above Niagara Falls. Despite skepticism and opposition from local Canadian authorities, Cooper devised a design for the Electrical Development Company of Ontario power plant that overcame the difficulties. Construction of the power plant was completed in 1907. He then turned to another project regarded as impractical: designing a hydroelectric dam across the Mississippi River between Keokuk, Iowa, and Hamilton, Illinois.
Completed in 1913, the Keokuk Water Power Project, marked a significant change in hydroelectric generating practice because it employed a wide, slow-moving river to drive its turbines. Cooper's next major project was in Africa. Egyptian authorities called on Cooper in 1913 to help them convert the Aswan Dam into a power source; the work was interrupted by World War I and not resumed until the 1920s. Cooper entered the U.S. Army during the war, supervising plans for what was to become the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The dam later became part of the Tennessee Valley Authority's waterway system.
After the war, Cooper was retained by the Soviet Union to construct the Dneprostroi Dam (later renamed Dneproges) across the Dnieper River in the Ukraine, at that time the largest hydroelectric plant in Europe. Completed in 1932, its generating capacity was 500,000 kilowatts and the dam made the river navigable for the first time by raising its level. Destroyed in World War II, the facility was rebuilt in 1947. Cooper's work in Russia is regarded as a model for transfer of industrial skills from technologically advanced societies to those less so. In their paper, "Expanding the Content Base of Technology Education: Technology Transfer as a Topic of Study," Scott D. Johnson, Elizabeth Faye Gatz, and Don Hicks write: "Although Stalin was a powerful change agent, he did not have enough knowledge of the technology to lead the transfer effort...Hugh Lincoln Cooper was employed from the U.S. because he had both the technical expertise to guide such a project and the influence needed to see that the project succeeded."