THE ROBINSON LIBRARY
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once the richest man in the United States (if not the world)
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Sctoland, on November 25, 1835, the second of two sons born to William and Margaret (Morrison) Carnegie. His was one of many handloom weavers to lose their jobs to steam-powered looms, and his mother had to operate a small grocery shop and mend shoes to help support the family. In 1848, the family borrowed money to emigrate to America; they settled in Allegheny (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania.
Andrew began his working life as a bobbin boy in a local cotton factory, making $1.20 a week. He later took a job in a factory tending the steam engine and boiler, for $2.00 per week. He impresses his supervisor with his penmanship and is offered the chance to work as a clerk for the factory. By 1849 Carnegie was making $2.50 a week as a messenger boy in the city telegraph office. Because he memorizes street names and the names of people to whom he takes messages, he is able to save time when he meets a recipient of a message on the street. Soon after, he is promoted to the position of telegraph operator and begins making $20 per month. One of the men Carnegie met at the telegraph office was Thomas A. Scott, then beginning a career at the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott was taken by the young worker and, in 1853, hired him as his private secretary and personal telegrapher at $35 a month. Carnegie subsequently worked his way up the ladder at the railroad, and succeeded Scott as superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division in 1859. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott was hired to supervise military transportation for the North and Carnegie worked as his right hand man.
Carnegie began building his business empire in 1856, when he took out a loan from a local bank and invested $217.50 in the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company. Within two years he was receiving a return of about $5,000 annually, more than three times his salary from the railroad. In 1861, he invested $11,000 in an oil company in Titusville, Pennsylvania, which earned him a return of $17,868 after only one year. By 1863 he was making $42,000 a year, only $2,400 of which came from his railroad job. About half of his income came from his oil investment, while investments in the Piper and Schiffler Company, the Adams Express Company, and the Central Transportation Company contributed over $13,000.
Drafted by the Union Army in 1864, Carnegie paid another man $850 to take his place, a perfectly acceptable option at that time.
In 1865, Carnegie left the railroad to establish the Keystone Bridge Company, which worked to replace wooden bridges with stronger iron ones. In 1867 he founded the Keystone Telegraph Company, which subsequently got permission from the Pennsylvania Railroad to string telegraph wire across the railroad's poles. This proved to be such a valuable asset that Keystone was able to merge almost immediately with the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company, allowing investors to triple their return.
In 1868, Carnegie wrote a letter to himself in which he pledged to resign from business at age 35 and live on an income of $50,000 per year, devoting the remainder of his money to philanthropic causes and most of his time to his education.
On a visit to England in 1872, Carnegie visited Henry Bessemer's steel plants. The Freedom Iron Company, which Carnegie formed in 1861, had been using Bessemer's process of making steel for several years, but the visit made him realize the commercial potential of steel and he returned to America with plans to expand his steel business. He opened his first steel plant, the Edgar Thomson Works, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1875, and subsequently built plants around the country. In addition to using technology and methods that made manufacturing steel easier, faster and more productive, Carnegie also made sure he owned as much of the process as possible -- the raw materials, ships and railroads for transporting the goods, and even coal fields to fuel the steel furnaces. By 1889, Carnegie Steel Corporation was the largest of its kind in the world.
In 1887, Carnegie married Louise Whitfield, the daughter of a wealthy New York City merchant who was 20 years his junior. The couple had one child, Margaret.
Unusual among the industrial captains of his day, Carnegie was a champion for the rights of laborers to unionize. His actions did not always match his rhetoric, however, as Carnegie's steel workers were often pushed to long hours and low wages. When steel prices began declining, Carnegie sought to lower wages at his Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant. The workers refused to negotiate, however, and, in 1892, they chose to strike rather than submit. Carnegie, who was on vacation in Scotland at the time, told plant manager Henry Frick to do whatever was necessary to keep the plant operating. After bringing in replacement workers, Frick hired the Pinkerton Agency to guard the plant and keep the strikers at bay. The Pinkertons ended up firing on the strikers, however, and by the time the conflict was over nine strikers and three Pinksertons were dead. The strike was subsequently broken by the National Guard, and the plant eventually resumed limited operation. The conflict seriously damaged Carnegie's reputation, and he was personally haunted by it for the rest of his life.
By 1900 Carnegie Steel was producing more steel than all of Great Britain. That was also the year that financier J. P. Morgan mounted a major challenge to Carnegie's steel empire. While Carnegie believed he could beat Morgan in a battle lasting up to 15 years, the fight did not appeal to the 64-year old man eager to spend more time with his wife and daughter. Carnegie wrote the asking price for his steel business on a piece of paper and had one of his managers deliver the offer to Morgan. Morgan accepted without hesitation, buying the company for $480 million, in 1901. "Congratulations, Mr. Carnegie," Morgan said to Carnegie when they finalized the deal, "you are now the richest man in the world." Morgan then merged Carnegie Steel with a group of other steel businesses to form U.S. Steel, the world's first billion-dollar corporation.
Having missed his self-imposed retirement deadline by thirty years, Carnegie began the second part of his 1868 proclamation, a life of philanthropy, in earnest. In 1889 he had written an article titled "The Gospel of Wealth" in which he stated that the rich have "a moral obligation to distribute [their money] in ways that promote the welfare and happiness of the common man," and that "the man who dies rich dies disgraced." Having had the advantage of visiting a privately-run library as a child, he ultimately funded the establishment of more than 2,500 public libraries around the globe, many of which are still operating today. He also donated more than 7,600 organs to churches worldwide and endowed organizations dedicated to research in science, education, world peace, and other causes. Among his larger gifts was the $1.1 million required for the land and construction costs of Carnegie Hall, the legendary New York City concert venue that opened in 1891, an endowment to establish Carnegie-Mellon University in 1904, and establishment of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1905 and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. By the time he died, Carnegie had given away over $350 million.
Andrew Carnegie died on August 11, 1919, at his Shadowbrook estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, North Tarrytown, New York.
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This page was last updated on October 04, 2017.