Andrew Carnegie

Steel Magnate and the Richest Man in the World

Scottish-American industrialist and major philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (circa 1900s). (Photo By FPG/Getty Images)

Who Was Andrew Carnegie?

Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie led the American steel industry at the turn of the century, eventually becoming the richest man in the world.

Carnegie then turned around and gave most of his wealth away. Focusing on global education and world peace, Carnegie ultimately donated a staggering $350 million.

Dates: November 25, 1835 – August 11, 1919

Also Known As: King of Steel

Growing Up

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on November 25, 1835, to Margaret (nee Morrison) and William Carnegie, a handloom weaver. For extra family income, Margaret sewed soles on the bottoms of boots, having learned it from her father, who was a shoemaker.

William had a kind nature and Margaret gave wise counsel to anyone coming by her door seeking advice. Carnegie claimed his lifelong optimistic nature came from his paternal grandfather, whom he was named after.

In 1840, Carnegie’s sister, Ann, was born; however, she died in infancy. In 1843, Carnegie’s brother, Thomas (Tom), was born. That same year, eight-year-old Carnegie attended Mr. Martin’s school, demonstrating an uncanny knack for memorization.

He attributed his love of history to his uncle, George Lauder, who told him stories about the legendary Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

Emigrating to the U.S.

With the introduction of steam-loom weaving in 1847, William’s handloom business declined and the family experienced a sharp economic downturn.

Margaret wrote to her sister in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to inquire if she could move her family there since her sister had a weaving business. The response was positive.

Money for the trip was loaned from Mrs. Henderson, a family friend in Dunfermline, and Uncle Lauder guaranteed the payback. Carnegie was 13 when his family sailed the seven-week-long voyage to America, which began on May 17, 1848, aboard the S.V. Wiscasset.

On the subsequent three-week journey from New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which included a canal boat on Lake Eerie and a steamboat down the Ohio River, Carnegie witnessed men laying railroad track that would soon shorten the trip to only ten hours. This greatly impressed Carnegie as he arrived in “Slabtown,” an immigrant neighborhood in Allegheny.

When William failed to sell the tablecloths he had made, he went to work in a cotton factory; Margaret repaired shoes for extra family income.

Carnegie, who did not attend school in the U.S., was paid $1.20 per week working full-time as a bobbin-boy in a cotton factory. Carnegie ran a steam engine that fired the boiler in the basement, helped out with the bookkeeping (having a keen mind for math), and bathed the new spools in vats of oil, the smell of which made him terribly nauseous.

Entering the Telegraph Business

In 1850, 15-year-old Andrew Carnegie acquired a job as a telegraph messenger for the Eastern Telegraph Line in Pittsburgh for $2.50 per week. With his uncanny knack for memorization, Carnegie quickly memorized the street names, the firms, and the businessmen in the Pittsburgh business district.

One of these businessmen was Colonel James Anderson, founder of free libraries in western Pennsylvania, who opened his 400-volume library to all the working boys.

This made a major impression on Carnegie, who became an avid reader. About this time, Carnegie and his parents repaid Mrs. Henderson all the money she had loaned them for their trip to the U.S.

By age 17, Carnegie had learned the telegraph business well enough to be able to fill in for his boss and at other telegraph offices. He became a telegraph operator by sound rather than printing, a rare accomplishment, and was promoted from the messenger’s station to the operating room as an assistant operator at $25 per month.

Entering the Railroad Business

In 1853, Andrew Carnegie, now age 18, was hired as the personal telegrapher and assistant to Thomas Scott, the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad's western division in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Paid $35 per month, Carnegie learned the railroad industry.

Two years later, Carnegie’s father died, leaving 20-year-old Carnegie as the family’s breadwinner.

After his father died, Carnegie branched out in the hopes of earning more money for his family. He took out a bank loan for $217.50 to invest in a new invention called sleeping cars by the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company.

After two years, Carnegie received a return on investment (ROI) of $5,000 annually -- a hefty amount considering his annual income was less than a thousand dollars.

In 1859, when Thomas Scott was promoted to general superintendent, 24-year-old Carnegie was promoted to superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division. His brother Tom, who had also learned telegraphy, became Carnegie’s secretary.

Civil War and Investments

In 1861, the Civil War brought challenges to the railroads. Thomas Scott, who was appointed Assistant Secretary of War in charge of military railroads and telegraphs, summoned Andrew Carnegie to Washington D.C. to once again be his assistant.

Carnegie assisted Scott in supervising railroad line repairs, wrecks, sabotaged telegraph lines (President Lincoln was the first president to communicate with the battlefield via telegraph), and transporting wounded soldiers and supplies.

After one year, and no end in sight to the war, the military created the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps, and Scott and Carnegie returned to their former positions. Carnegie invested in the Piper and Schiffler Company, the Adams Express Company, and the Central Transportation Company. In 1863, Carnegie’s additional investments paid him over $13,000 annually.

In 1864, Carnegie was drafted into the Union Army; however, he opted to pay a substitute $850 to serve in his place, feeling that his patriotic duty had been satisfied. The Enrollment Act of 1863, which allowed Carnegie to do this, garnered public resentment and led to the slogan: ”rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”

The Act had another flaw-- many substitutes deserted, only to collect money from additional replacement finders and enlist again and again. The U.S. government eventually issued an amendment: reoccurring enlistees would lose their citizenship if caught.

Carnegie the Entrepreneur

Once back home, a neighbor of his, William Coleman, invited Carnegie to invest in his new oil company, which hoped to strike it rich within the newly emerging oil industry. After taking a personal tour of the oil region north of Pittsburgh, Carnegie agreed. Within three years, this investment would make him rich.

Looking for ways to reinvest this wealth and remembering the numerous wooden bridges that had been damaged during the Civil War, Carnegie retired from the railroad in 1865 and founded Keystone Bridge Works. The company (named for Pennsylvania, the Keystone State) built cast-iron bridges with the upper cord made of wrought iron. Iron bridges were safer and more permanent than wood ones, which could easily rot or burn.

Scott went in on the venture, so did the Piper and Schiffler Company, who were engineers and mechanics. The company was the first of its kind in the U.S., and the bridges proved extremely strong.

Two years later, in 1867, Carnegie founded another business – the Keystone Telegraph Company. Keystone soon merged with the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph Company, allowing Keystone's investors to triple their ROIs.

Carnegie continued to invest and continued to make a lot of money. By the age of 33, Andrew Carnegie was a very wealthy man with a net worth of about $400,000 (about $75 million today).

The Note

In December 1868, 33-year-old Andrew Carnegie wrote himself a note that questioned his life as a businessman, worrying about falling into the trap of idolizing money.

In this note, Carnegie decided that he would work for two more years and then resign from business forever. He was determined to get an education at Oxford, something he felt he was lacking. He would live on an annual investment income of $50,000 and donate the surplus.

It was an interesting piece of introspection and a turning point in his life. Although Carnegie did not retire from business, he did broaden his life to include more books and education, and made philanthropy a huge part of his life.

Carnegie and Steel

Everything was going well for Carnegie, so much so that he decided to venture into an entirely new field – steel. Backed by his knowledge and experience with his Freedom Iron Company (created to supply iron for his bridges), Carnegie considered branching into stronger metals. When the U.S. government put a huge tariff on incoming steel, Carnegie seized the opportunity.

Due to the financial panic of 1873, Carnegie and his brother Tom did not open the first steel plant in the U.S. until 1874. When the plant opened, which they named the Edgar Thomson Steel Company Ltd. (in honor of the Pennsylvania Railroad president) the first order was for 2,000 steel rails to replace iron tracks for the Pennsylvania Railroad to accommodate heavier, faster trains.

In 1880, Carnegie met 21-year-old Louise Whitfield through a mutual friend. Louise was the daughter of a wealthy New York City merchant and a semi-invalid mother, whom she cared for. Carnegie called on Louise from time to time for the next seven years, but was urged by his mother not to marry Louise, saying no woman was good enough for her son. Carnegie, devoted to his mother, took her advice.

In 1881, Carnegie merged with Henry Clay Frick of the Frick Coke Company, his main supplier of coke coal, in order to maximize profits through ownership of raw materials. Two years later, Carnegie bought a rival steel mill, the Homestead Steel Works, making the tough Henry Clay Frick the general manager.

The Carnegie family experienced plenty of illness in 1886. Andrew Carnegie contracted typhoid fever, but recovered. However, Carnegie’s brother and mother were not so lucky -- both died of pneumonia that November. Tom left behind his wife Lucy and their nine children. Margaret left behind a lonely son who was now free to marry Louise.


Five months after the death of his mother, Andrew Carnegie married Louise Whitfield on April 22, 1887, in a small, private wedding at the Whitfield home. Carnegie was 51; Louise was 30.

Although it was reported that Margaret had been jealous of Louise, wanting her son all to herself, Louise named their only child Margaret, who was born March 30, 1897.

The Carnegies then bought the dilapidated Skibo Castle in the northern highlands of Scotland, restoring it into a sporting estate with a golf course, where the couple entertained the captains of industry.

Becoming the Richest Man in the World

Publicly revealing his feelings about the idolization of money, Andrew Carnegie published "Wealth,” an article in an 1889 issue of North American Review. He stated in his essay that the wealthy were merely stewards of money with a moral obligation to better society; dying a rich man was a disgrace.

He felt that the rich had made their money because of other people and in the end ought to reimburse the public to better civilization.

Despite Carnegie’s philanthropic feelings, Carnegie had become rich by driving down costs and underselling his competition. This made steel affordable, thus fueling the building of skyscrapers and bridges, but it also meant a hard and often dangerous life for his workers.

Carnegie worked his steel workers 12-hours a day, seven days a week, amidst noise and flames for little pay. Many workmen lost limbs or were burned in accidents as a result.

In 1892, his workmen had had enough. While Carnegie was vacationing in Scotland, union workers protested his company’s wage cuts. In response, General Manager Henry Clay Frick locked the workers out and called in 300 Pinkerton armed guards to protect the plant.

A bloody battle ensued and ten men died, seven of whom were steel workers. State militia eventually took control of the chaos, union leaders were arrested, and Frick hired replacement workers. The strike ended five months later with the union’s defeat, branding Frick a cold-hearted, relentless mercenary.

Frick was so disliked that shortly after the Homestead Strike he was shot and stabbed in an assassination attempt by an anarchist (Frick survived the attack). Carnegie’s role in the strike is still debated, but at the time he was engulfed in negative publicity from the incident. Frick and Carnegie's relationship soured because of the strike.

In 1899, Carnegie organized his several steel companies into Carnegie Steel, with an annual profit of $40 million. The U.S. now dominated the steel industry.

On December 5, 1899, Frick resigned from the board of Carnegie Steel, regaining control over his coke works, the largest in the world. Carnegie and Frick soon fought over the price of coke that Frick was again supplying to Carnegie Steel.

In 1901, Carnegie, tired of partner quarrels and union disputes, sold his steel business to J.P. Morgan for $480 million, making 65-year-old Andrew Carnegie the richest man in the world.

Carnegie the Philanthropist

Andrew Carnegie had always enjoyed giving back to Dunfermline, Scotland. In 1873, he had sent the town money to build a swimming pool -- his first major donation. In 1881, Carnegie had sent the town money to build Carnegie Library.

However, after selling his steel company in 1901, Carnegie devoted himself to philanthropy and went on to build over 2,500 libraries throughout the world, remembering the generosity of Colonel James Anderson, who had opened his 400-volume library to all the working boys.

In 1891, Carnegie built Carnegie Hall, a concert hall in New York City. In 1902, he founded the Carnegie Institution to provide research for American colleges and universities. Carnegie endowed the Teachers’ Pension Fund with $10,000,000 in 1905.

In 1910 he established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and built the Central American Court of Justice in Costa Rica, which, unfortunately, was destroyed by an earthquake shortly afterward.

In 1911, Carnegie gave $125,000,000 to establish the Carnegie Corporation, which donated grant money to education and research. His philanthropy to global education and world peace was ultimately over $350 million (90% of his fortune).

Death of Andrew Carnegie

In 1916, the Carnegies bought Shadow Brook, a 100-room mansion in Massachusetts; Carnegie lived there for the rest of his life. When he developed pneumonia, Carnegie summoned Henry Clay Frick to come to Shadow Brook so they could bury their differences. Frick sent a note back to Carnegie that he would see him in hell.

On August 11, 1919, Andrew Carnegie died from bronchial pneumonia at age 84. Unexpectedly, Frick died of a heart attack four months later at the age of 69.

Carnegie is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. His gravestone is made of stone taken from Skibo Castle. The headstone merely reads: “Andrew Carnegie Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, 25 November 1835. Died in Lenox, Massachusetts, 11 August 1919.”

Louise died 27 years after her husband, at the age of 89. Skibo Castle is now a private members-only hotel and sporting paradise. Carnegie’s 5th Avenue mansion is now Cooper Hewitt Museum. Louise gave Shadow Brook to the Jesuits in 1922; it burned down in 1956.

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Schwartz, Shelly. "Andrew Carnegie." ThoughtCo, Jul. 17, 2017, Schwartz, Shelly. (2017, July 17). Andrew Carnegie. Retrieved from Schwartz, Shelly. "Andrew Carnegie." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 18, 2018).