The autobiography of Andrew Carnegie

The last post made some statements about Andrew Carnegie, with my main source of information about him being his autobiography, which was published posthumously. I just finished reading that book for the second time and here I want to mention some further things about him which I find interesting. Carnegie’s life after he arrived in the US is an exemplary rags to riches story corresponding to the American dream. His first job in a factory was for one dollar and 25 cents a week, working long hours. He writes that his first week’s earnings made him happier than any of the millions he made later, for they meant that he was contributing to the subsistence of his family. He was thirteen years old. After this he moved to a job which was even harder but it already brought him two dollars a week and after that his income rose steadily. He became a messenger boy and used this to start to build up a network of contacts. He was always ready to grab any opportunity that came along and to make any efforts which he thought might help him to improve his situation in life. He made himself useful in the office and managed to get a position as a telegraph operator. With the contacts he made there he was able to move to a job as clerk and telegraph operator to an important railway employee, Thomas Scott. At this time a serious incident took place. Carnegie had the duty of fetching the pay for the employees working under Scott. Once he was bringing it, travelling by train. It was quite a new thing at that time and he travelled on the engine because he found it exciting. While he was not paying attention the packet containing the pay, which he had under his jacket, fell out of the train. Some time later he noticed the loss. It could have meant losing his job and suddenly having huge debts. He was able to persuade his companions to drive the train back and eventually saw the packet lying on the bank of a river. If it had rolled a little further it would have ended in the river and been lost. In fact it stopped soon enough, he found it and the disaster was averted. The fact that Carnegie was so successful in his life no doubt had a lot to do with luck, with this being a notable example. What would have happened if the packet had landed in the river? It would have been a big setback for him but I think he would soon have overcome it. He certainly had luck but I think that played much less of a role in his success than his character.

A big step forward in Carnegie’s career involved taking a big risk. His boss was responsible for organizing the railway traffic in a big network. In particular, if there was some problem such as an accident (and these were not so rare) he was the one who had to sort it out and get the trains running again. For this purpose he prepared telegraph messages and Carnegie sent them out. In this way he learned how Scott carried out these tasks. One morning many trains were standing still due to previous problems. The situation was such that they could have started running again and this would have been beneficial for the company. Scott was not in the office. He decided to take the decisions needed to start up traffic again and send them out in Scott’s name. Of course he had no authority to do that. When Scott came back Carnegie was very apprehensive but immediately said what he had done. Scott looked through the documentation of the measures taken and then simply returned to his desk without a word. Carnegie’s explanation for this behaviour was as follows. Scott could not praise him for what he had done since he had broken all the rules. On the other hand he could not scold him since he had done everything right. So he just said nothing. Now Carnegie could relax concerning the consequences of that incident but he almost decided to never do such a thing again. Then he heard from an acquaintance how Scott had talked to someone else about the matter and this allowed him to judge the impression his daring action had made on Scott. After that he had no hesitation about carrying out such actions. Since Scott liked coming in late he had plenty of opportunities for that. Eventually this put Carnegie in the position to take over the job of his boss and thus take a big step to a higher level of status and pay.

Carnegie later got involved in the production of iron and things constructed out of it, such as rails and bridges. He got an advantage over his competitors by employing a chemist. The iron ore from some mines was unpopular and correspondingly relatively cheap. There had been problems with smelting it. A chemical analysis revealed the source of the problem – that ore contained too much iron for the smelting process to work well. The solution was to modify the process (with the help of scientific considerations) and then it was possible to buy the high quality ore at a cheap price while others continued to buy low quality ore at a high price. Previously nobody really knew what they were buying. Carnegie believed in the value of real knowledge. Carnegie did not like the stock exchange and emphasized that except for once at the beginning of his career he never speculated. It was always his policy to buy and sell things on the basis of their real value. Carnegie was no friend of unions and often fought them hard. On the other hand he was, or claimed to be, a friend of the working man. His idea was not to give people money just like that but to give them the opportunity to improve their own situation. In later years he gave a huge amount of money, about 300 million dollars in total for various causes. He gave money for libraries (more than two hundred), for scientific research, for church organs and of course for the Carnegie Hall. These were all things which he believed would do people good.

Carnegie was committed to the goal of world peace. He had a lot of influence with powerful politicians and it seems that in at least one case he used it to prevent the US becoming involved in a war. He got into contact with Kaiser Wilhelm II. It turned out that both of them were admirers of Robert the Bruce. He had great hopes for the Kaiser as someone who could help to bring peace and he must have been bitterly disappointed in 1914 when things went a very different way. Then he transferred his hopes to President Wilson. At that point his autobiography breaks off. Here I have only been able to present a few selected things from a fascinating book which I thoroughly recommend. I find Carnegie an admirable character.

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