Biography of Andrew Carnegie, Steel Magnate

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie

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Andrew Carnegie (November 25, 1835–August 11, 1919) was a steel magnate, leading industrialist, and philanthropist. With a keen focus on cost-cutting and organization, Carnegie was often regarded as a ruthless robber baron, though he eventually withdrew from business to devote himself to donating money to various philanthropic causes.

Fast Facts: Andrew Carnegie

  • Known For: Carnegie was a preeminent steel magnate and a major philanthropist.
  • Born: November 25, 1835 in Drumferline, Scotland
  • Parents: Margaret Morrison Carnegie and William Carnegie
  • Died: August 11, 1919 in Lenox, Massachusetts
  • Education: Free School in Dunfermline, night school, and self-taught through Colonel James Anderson's library
  • Published WorksAn American Four-in-hand in Britain, Triumphant Democracy, The Gospel of Wealth, The Empire of Business, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie
  • Awards and Honors: Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Glasgow, honorary doctorate, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. The following are all named for Andrew Carnegie: the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii, the cactus Carnegiea gigantea, the Carnegie Medal children’s literature award, Carnegie Hall in New York City, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
  • Spouse(s): Louise Whitfield
  • Children: Margaret
  • Notable Quote: “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Early Life

Andrew Carnegie was born at Drumferline, Scotland on November 25, 1835. When Andrew was 13, his family emigrated to America and settled near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father had worked as a linen weaver in Scotland and pursued that work in America after first taking a job in a textile factory.

Young Andrew worked in the textile factory, replacing bobbins. He then took a job as a telegraph messenger at the age of 14, and within a few years was working as a telegraph operator. He educated himself through his voracious reading, benefitting from the generosity of a local retired merchant, Colonel James Anderson, who opened his small library to "working boys." Ambitious at work, Carnegie was promoted to be an assistant to an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad by the age of 18.

During the Civil War, Carnegie, working for the railroad, helped the federal government set up a military telegraph system, which became vital to the war effort. For the duration of the war, he worked for the railroad.

Early Business Success

While working in the telegraph business, Carnegie began investing in other businesses. He invested in several small iron companies, a company that made bridges, and a manufacturer of railroad sleeping cars. Taking advantage of oil discoveries in Pennsylvania, Carnegie also invested in a small petroleum company.

By the end of the war, Carnegie was prosperous from his investments and began to harbor greater business ambitions. Between 1865 and 1870, he took advantage of the increase in international business following the war. He traveled frequently to England, selling the bonds of American railroads and other businesses. It has been estimated that he became a millionaire from his commissions selling bonds.

While in England, he followed the progress of the British steel industry. He learned everything he could about the new Bessemer process, and with that knowledge, he became determined to focus on the steel industry in America.

Carnegie had absolute confidence that steel was the product of the future. And his timing was perfect. As America industrialized, putting up factories, new buildings, and bridges, he was perfectly situated to produce and sell the steel the country needed.

Carnegie the Steel Magnate

In 1870, Carnegie established himself in the steel business. Using his own money, he built a blast furnace. He created a company in 1873 to make steel rails using the Bessemer process. Though the country was in an economic depression for much of the 1870s, Carnegie prospered.

A very tough businessman, Carnegie undercut competitors and was able to expand his business to the point where he could dictate prices. He kept reinvesting in his own company, and though he took in minor partners, he never sold stock to the public. He could control every facet of the business, and he did it with a fanatical eye for detail.

In the 1880s, Carnegie bought out Henry Clay Frick’s company, which owned coal fields as well as a large steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Frick and Carnegie became partners. As Carnegie began to spend half of every year at an estate in Scotland, Frick stayed in Pittsburgh, running the day-to-day operations of the company.

The Homestead Strike

Carnegie began to face a number of problems by the 1890s. Government regulation, which had never been an issue, was being taken more seriously as reformers actively tried to curtail the excesses of businessmen known as "robber barons."

The union which represented workers at the Homestead Mill went on strike in 1892. On July 6, 1892, while Carnegie was in Scotland, Pinkerton guards on barges attempted to take over the steel mill at Homestead.

The striking workers were prepared for the attack by the Pinkertons, and a bloody confrontation resulted in the death of strikers and Pinkertons. Eventually, an armed militia had to take over the plant.

Carnegie was informed by transatlantic cable of the events in Homestead. But he made no statement and did not get involved. He would later be criticized for his silence, and he later expressed regrets for his inaction. His opinions on unions, however, never changed. He fought against organized labor and was able to keep unions out of his plants during his lifetime.

As the 1890s continued, Carnegie faced competition in business, and he found himself being squeezed by tactics similar to those he had employed years earlier. In 1901, tired of business battles, Carnegie sold his interests in the steel industry to J.P. Morgan, who formed the United States Steel Corporation. Carnegie began to devote himself entirely to giving away his wealth.

Carnegie’s Philanthropy

Carnegie had already been giving money to create museums, such as the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh. But his philanthropy accelerated after selling Carnegie Steel. Carnegie supported numerous causes, including scientific research, educational institutions, museums, and world peace. He is best known for funding more than 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, and, perhaps, for building Carnegie Hall, a performance hall that has become a beloved New York City landmark.

Death

Carnegie died of bronchial pneumonia at his summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts on August 11, 1919. At the time of his death, he had already given away over a large portion of his wealth, more than $350 million.

Legacy

While Carnegie was not known to be openly hostile to the rights of workers for much of his career, his silence during the notorious and bloody Homestead Steel Strike cast him in a very bad light in labor history.

Carnegie's philanthropy left a huge mark on the world, including the endowment of many educational institutions and the funding of research and world peace efforts. The library system he helped form is a foundation of American education and democracy.

Sources

  • Andrew Carnegie's Story.” Carnegie Corporation of New York.
  • Carnegie, Andrew. Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. PublicAffairs, 1919.
  • Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. Penguin Group, 2006.