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Issue 41 - Andrew Carnegie

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
October 2008

 

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Andrew Carnegie

The latest in our series on famous Scots leads us to one of the world's greatest philanthropists.

It is amazing to think that a boy from Dunfermline, born to a fiercely socialist family and with only three years of formal education, went on to become America’s first steel magnate and the wealthiest man in the world. Equally, it is reassuring to know that he did not forget his humble beginnings, giving much of his fortune away for the benefit of humankind.

Andrew Carnegie was born on 25th November 1835 to a poor family. His father was a handloom weaver at a time when business was declining and Scotland was entering an economic depression. Along with many others seeking their fortunes abroad in the 1840s, the family upped sticks and emigrated to the United States, joining a Scottish colony at Allegheny near Pittsburgh.

Carnegie never shied away from hard work and was already employed as a bobbin boy at a local cotton factory by the age of 12. He soon went on to join the Pittsburgh Telegraph Office, where he was later appointed secretary to Thomas A.

Scott, superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

At this point Carnegie’s career was set to take off. He was Scott’s assistant during the Civil War and afterwards succeeded to the position of superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Carnegie was clearly a man whose qualities were recognised, and he soon proved his business acumen by investing in a number of business ventures.

He was largely self-educated and had a strong desire to improve himself. He closely followed the progress of the iron industry and saw his opportunity in steel, erecting his first steel furnace at Braddock in 1874.

His enterprise was later to become the Carnegie Steel Company, the largest steel company in the world, and by the time he retired his personal fortune came to $225 million. In today’s money that fortune is thought to be close to $100 billion.

Although Carnegie’s generosity in later life is famous, business can be ruthless, and successful business especially. Carnegie was not exclusively associated with good deeds.

His recent biography by Peter Krass describes the horrendous working conditions of Carnegie’s steel-working staff, with 20 per cent of male deaths in Pittsburgh during the 1880s resulting from fatal accidents in the steel mills.

Despite the questions hanging over the working conditions of his factory staff and the tragedy following the strike, Carnegie was true to his word and he did donate vast sums of money both before and after he retired. He spent $56 million on 2,509 public libraries across the world and created more than 20 foundations to further his educational and philanthropic ideals.

Dunfermline, Glasgow and the rest of Scotland featured highly on Carnegie’s list, a sign of his desire to give something back to the country of his birth, for the enrichment of the lives of others.

When he purchased Pittencrieff Park and gave it to the people of Dunfermline in 1903, he wanted “to bring into the monotonous lives of the toiling masses of Dunfermline, more of sweetness and light.” He was especially pleased to give money to Glasgow, writing that “Glasgow has done so much in municipal affairs to educate other cities and to help herself that it is a privilege to help her.” In some ways, Carnegie’s socialist ideals do not sit comfortably with his capitalistic success. He certainly enjoyed his wealth.

One only has to look at Skibo Castle, now the highly exclusive Carnegie Club, to see the sheer extremity of wealth and opulence that surrounded him.

Andrew Carnegie died on 11th August 1919 at Lenox, Massachusetts. He is buried at Sleepy Hollow, New York. By the time he died, he had given away $350 million and a further $125 million went to the Carnegie Corporation for the continuation of his philanthropic works. Today his name is attached to trusts and corporations working to bring about world peace and justice, free education and financial assistance for those who have proved themselves to be heroes.

As a man of many facets and undeniable generosity, Carnegie is prized in Scotland and in the United States as one of the greatest philanthropists of all time.