Andrew Carnegie – Man of Steel

Carnegie Library of Atlanta. Historic American Buildings Survey.

Many in the library world think of Andrew Carnegie in terms of the many public libraries his fortune built, but otherwise, who was this man?

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland on November 25, 1825. His family immigrated to the United States when he was a child and eventually they settled in Pennsylvania.  Carnegie worked his way though a series of jobs, including one as a messenger and operator at the Ohio Telegraph Company and as a secretary/telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.  He eventually worked his way up to superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division of Pennsylvania Railroad and caught the eye of two company executives – Thomas A. Scott and company president J. Edgar Thomson – both of whom would remain influential throughout Carnegie’s life.  Carnegie became quite adept at investing and one of his earliest endeavors was using his connections and skills to merge the T.T. Woodruff & Company (later called Central Transportation Company), a maker of sleeping cars for trains, and the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Andrew Carnegie, c1913

In 1861 he was appointed Superintendent of the Military Railways and the Union government’s telegraph lines in the East when his mentor Thomas Scott became Assistant Secretary of War.  Because of his position, Carnegie had knowledge of the war machine during the Civil War and saw there was a large need for iron products.  After the war he used this new knowledge to switch his business interests from railroads and telegraphs to the ironworks industry, eventually founding the Keystone Bridge Works.   His contacts in the railroads, which needed lots of steel, came in handy and he was able to use them to increase business.  Carnegie’s business was right in the middle of a rapidly changing America.

Carnegie may have been known as a successful man of business but he was also an innovator.  In a desire to make steel more cheaply and more efficiently, he successfully adopted the Bessemer process at his Homestead Steel Works plant. He also brought in Henry Clay Frick as a partner in 1881, and put him in charge of company operations.  By 1889, steel production in the United States outpaced that of the U.K. – and most of that was under Carnegie’s control. By then, Carnegie was one of the wealthiest men in America.

The Homestead riot. Drawn by W.P. Snyder after a photograph by Dabbs, Pittsburg. Cover Harpers Weekly July 16, 1892.

The company had a challenging year in 1892.  In late June, plant employees – members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers – went on strike and shut Homestead down.  For about a week there was little activity, but all that changed on July 6, 1892 when Frick brought in the Pinkerton’s to bring the plant back under company control.  After a short battle where a number of people were injured or killed, the state militia was brought in.  The company regained control of the plant, although there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Frick.  Later that year the strike collapsed. Unfortunately, the events at Homestead stuck to Carnegie, and his reputation suffered for years.

Times were changing and in 1901, Carnegie Steel was merged into J.P. Morgan’s new company – United States Steel Company.  This left time for Carnegie to do other things – such as more writing.  While Carnegie had written one of his most notable articles back in the June 1889 issue of North American Review titled “Wealth,” now he could do more.  In the November 22, 1914 issue of the New York Tribune, he wrote an article titled “Educating for Business Success” and regularly contributed to the journals Nineteenth Century and North American Review.  He even wrote a number of books including Triumphant Democracy, The Gospel of Wealth, and An American Four-in-hand in Britain.  His success influenced a number of people including one gentleman by the name of Napoleon Hill, whom he met in 1908 when Hill wrote a series of articles on successful men.  Hill went on to make a name for himself, writing a number of books in the “personal success” genre including Think and Grow Rich and The Law of Success.

Carnegie is also known in other areas, particularly education. Worldwide, over 2,500 libraries, most of them in the United States, were built and equipped with Carnegie funds. He also donated money to universities and centers of learning including Carnegie Mellon University and its engineering program the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, the Tuskegee Institute, and the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington, D.C. He also used his money to found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910.

Andrew Carnegie at the 25th anniversary of the Tuskegee Institute, April 1906. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection.

Carnegie died August 11, 1919, but his legacy lived on though the libraries and universities that he gave so generously to establish, as well as the cultural institutions like Carnegie Hall and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh that he built.

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