• Exploring American History

Andrew Carnegie journeyed from Scottish rags to American riches

Born in Dunfermline, Scotland on November 25, 1835, Andrew Carnegie was the son of weaver William Carnegie and Margaret Morrison. Due to labor situations in Scotland, Andrew’s family immigrated to America in 1848 when he was 12 years old. Steam looms had begun to replace many of the Scottish workers, William among them, so they settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Following his father into the textile industry, Andrew soon went to work in a cotton mill as a bobbin boy. He worked 12 hours each day and earned $1.20 per week.

When he was not working, Andrew could be found with his nose in a book at the local library. The knowledge he gained from this time elevated him in his career, first to a messenger and then a telegraph operator.

Things began to change for Andrew in 1853. His skills as a telegraph operator caught the attention of Thomas A. Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. That year he made Carnegie his private secretary.

After obtaining this job, the bud of a blossoming business career for Carnegie began to grow. He bought stock in a sleeping car company and in a short amount of time, the money he was earning from this investment outpaced what he earned at his job. When he began to also profit handsomely from his similar investment in oil, Andrew was promoted to a superintendent’s position for Pennsylvania Railroad in 1859.

Andrew was busy helping to reorganize the telegraph service for the Union Army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Prior to this, he had paid the sum of $850 ($25,585.00 - 2021) to escape becoming an Army draftee.

Once the situation with the telegraph was taken care of, Andrew’s attention was drawn to the iron business. He now began to encourage the railroads to replace the aging wooden bridges they used with new ones made of iron. A trip to Europe introduced Carnegie to Henry Bessemer, who had developed a method for turning pig iron into steel. The possibilities of what he could do with this technology caused Carnegie to sell all his other holdings and focus solely on steel. Before long, the Carnegie Steel Company was up and running.

Andrew Carnegie’s recipe for success included several ingredients. Among them were hard work, attention to detail and hiring the right people. One of his early employees was Charles Schwab, future president of U.S. Steel.

Another ingredient in his success recipe was Carnegie’s knack for having a shrewd insight into human nature. A perfect example of this was displayed in 1875 when Carnegie opened his first steel plant. Naming the facility for J. Edgar Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie soon found himself the recipient of a huge order for railing needed by that company to build track. Around the country, Carnegie’s steel plants had the technology and methods to manufacture steel at a faster and more productive rate. Carnegie also owned everything he needed for the entire process - raw materials, ships and railcars for transporting the goods, in addition to coal fields to provide the fuel needed by the steel furnaces.

As with all other aspects of life, with the ups come the downs and Carnegie was no exception. It was felt by many that Carnegie’s success was built on the backs of those who worked for him. In 1892, an event referred to as the Homestead Strike occurred. Managers at his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania attempted to lower the wages the employees received. The employees understandably objected to this action and refused to work. Before long the conflict between managers and employees turned violent and guards were called in to resolve the issue. Carnegie was away on business at the time the strike erupted; however, many held him accountable for the strike and the behavior of his managers.

The wealth he began to obtain helped Carnegie to grow financially during the depression of the 1890s. As bankruptcy claimed various steel production facilities, Carnegie had the means to purchase these companies. Within 10 years, he held a controlling interest in 25% of the nation’s steel production. On March 24, 1900, Carnegie Steel Company was incorporated and one year later, was sold for $480 million ($15,135,828,571.00 - 2021) to United States Steel Corporation. Andrew Carnegie was now among the richest men in the world.

Another facet on the diamond of Carnegie’s personality now began to shine brightly. After acquiring such a vast fortune, 65-year-old Carnegie was determined he would not die rich. He believed those to whom great wealth is given must be socially responsible and use their resources to help others – “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced”; thus the remainder of his life would be spent giving away what he had accumulated.

Because reading had been such a favorite pastime of his, and played a large role in his success, Carnegie began building public libraries in order to provide that same opportunity to others. Over the years, Carnegie funded the building of over 2,500 libraries around the world, thereby enriching the lives of millions. Approximately $5 million was devoted to the New York Public Library.

In 1904, the Carnegie Institute of Technology was established in Pittsburgh; now known as Carnegie-Mellon University. In 1905 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching began. By the time he died on August 11, 1919, at the age of 83, Andrew Carnegie had given the vast majority of his wealth to a wide variety of charities.

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The man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.”

Andrew Carnegie

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