Andrew Carnegie

The legend of Andrew Carnegie is a perfect example of that Great American rags-to-riches story.Photo – The Carnegie Corporation

Andrew was born in a tiny cottage in Scotland.  His father was a fine linen weaver, but with the invention of mechanized looms, weavers across the community were losing work.  Fortunately, Andrew’s mother Mag was a strong, resourceful woman who managed to put food on the table by helping the local cobbler and running a small “sweetie” shop from her front door.

Andrew started attending the local school at age 8, which was typical for boys at the time.  Schools charged a tuition and the Carnegies could only afford the Rolland School, a Lancastrian method school with between 180 and 190 children of the poor and working classes.  With no money for an assistant, the strict headmaster managed the whole school with form monitors who dictated the lessons to their respective forms.  Each pupil was to copy the dictation to their slates where they were to memorize and recite it back to the older student.  Mr. Martin observed the proceedings from his desk on an elevated podium.  If he deemed any child to be slovenly, sleeping or stupid, he would hurl his tawse (leather strap) at the student, who was required to return it and receive a lash across the hands.  Fortunately, young Andrew was very good at memorization and recitation so he never had to be punished.  Plus he had the advantage of being excused from memorizing catechism because his father did not belong to either of the reigning churches, and arranged for him to be excused from catechism.

Finally, demand for hand-weaving completely dried up and the family was forced to move to America when Andrew was 12.  They lived with Mag’s sister in Pittsburgh at first, hoping to make a fresh start.  Andrew’s father wove fine tablecloths on a rented loom, but nobody wanted to buy them and he was completely resistant to learning any new skill.  So it was up to Mag to find odd jobs wherever she could.

When Andrew was 13, he got a job as a bobbin boy at the nearby Anchor Cotton Mill working a grueling 12 hours a day.  He was happy for the work though and put his heart into it.  Soon a visiting Scottish businessman noticed the plucky lad and offered him a job at twice the pay in his bobbin factory. His job was to feed the boiler and tend the engine that turned the lathes in the workshop.  The boss soon discovered that Andy was good with arithmetic and so entrusted him with the bookkeeping and a new nasty job of coating the newly turned bobbins with petroleum.  The nauseating smell of petroleum convinced the boy that he wanted to move in the direction of desk jobs, mainly bookkeeping.

But less than a year later, he was offered another opportunity through his uncle’s connections to work as a messenger for the Pittsburgh office of the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company.  Andy offered to begin at once, and was determined to be the best messenger boy he could be.  He worked hard to Americanize his accent, and learn his way around the crazy streets of Pittsburgh, “So I started in and learned all the addresses by heart, up one side of Wood Street and down the other.  Then I learned the other business streets in the same way.” He memorized the names and faces of the local businessmen so that he could greet them and deliver messages should he see them on the street.

Just before his 14th birthday, he found a draft for 500 dollars and turned it in to the proper authorities.  An article in the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette told the story and called Andy an “honest little fellow.” Andy soon became known all over town for his pluck and cheerful hard work.  He enjoyed the perks of being a messenger boy:  store-owners would give him fruit or sweet cakes or sometimes free admission to the theater.  Because of his manners and trustworthiness, his boss sometimes asked him to watch the office, to the disapproval of his peers.  The other boys thought him a prig because he did not enjoy roughhousing or sexual banter.  But Andy was only interested in getting ahead and his new goal was to become a telegraph operator.  He tried to teach himself by listening and going to the office early.  He finally got someone to teach him and one morning, before the office was opened, an urgent message came in and instead of ignoring it, Andy took the message, translated it, and delivered it.  He was afraid of being reprimanded but his boss instead commended him.  He began filling in when the regular operator was absent.  He even taught himself to take the messages by ear instead of transcribing the printed slips as everyone else did.  By age 15 and a half he was operating more than delivering and making four dollars a week.

He was very pleased with himself but sometimes missed his hometown in Scotland.  In a letter he wrote, “If I hd been in Dunfermline working at the loom it is very likely I would have been a poor weaver all my days, but here I can surely do something better than tat, if I don’t it will be my own fault, for anyone can get along in this Country.  I intend going to night school this fall to learn something more and after that I will try and teach myself some other branches.”

One serious drawback to his self-improvement plan was the expense of books.  He could not spare any money to buy his own books.  Around 1850, a philanthropic library was created, and the city’s apprentices and working boys were invited to borrow one book a week.  It was overwhelmingly popular and Andy was determined to read as much as he could.  He enjoyed histories such as William H. Prescott’s A History of the Conquest of Mexico; Thomas Macaulay’s History of England; and George Bancroft’s ten-volume A History of the United States.  He also enjoyed the essays of Charles Lamb and Thomas Macaulay, and scientific studies such as Mary Somerville’s On the Connection of the Physical Sciences.

At age 17, Andy made the business decision to switch from the telegraph company to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was entering a booming period of expansion.  He still worked as telegraph operator, but also as assistant to the superintendent.  Just as before, he learned fast, worked hard and ingratiated himself with his supervisors.  Because he was so trusted and favored by management, he received his first investment opportunity and started receiving monthly dividend checks.  This was a “Eureka” moment for him and he became very active in his family’s finances, paying off debts and keeping brother Tom in school.  He himself had no time or money for school.  Instead, he read as much as he could, and wrote letters, position papers, and articles for the Swedenborgian Society (he and his father were members of this gentle church).  He also formed a debate club with some other young men to meet and discuss theology, constitutional history and political theory.

He worked for his mentor Tom Scott for six and a half years, learning everything he could about business, management and the railroad industry.  When he transferred 100 miles away to Altoona, he spent a lot of time with Scott’s well-to-do family, learning manners and social niceties that his own mother was unable to teach him.  He was soon making enough money to buy a house in Altoona and set up household for his family, including a servant.  When Tom Scott was promoted t
o Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Andy was made superintendent of the Pittsburgh division at the tender age of 24.

This was just the beginning of Carnegie’s long career in business, investment and philanthropy.  He was independently wealthy by the age of 33 but could not resist the ample business opportunities that came his way.  He also took a lot of time off to travel the world, write books and further his own education.  He gave away millions of dollars in his lifetime – a significant portion of his personal fortune – particularly for the creation of public libraries and other scholarly institutions.

There are of course detractors from Carnegie’s legacy and criticism about how he earned his money, but there is little doubt that he worked very hard and had an uncanny instinct for business.  His impoverished beginnings surely gave him the extra motivation to succeed.  In a 1901 interview with Orison Swett Marden, Carnegie gave this advice to young men:  “Those who have the mis-fortune to be rich men’s sons are heavily weighted in the race.  A basketful of bonds is the heaviest basket a young man ever had to carry.  He generally gets to staggering under it.  The vast majority of rich men’s sons are unable to resist the temptations to which wealth subjects them, and they sink to unworthy lives.   It is not from this class that the poor beginner has rivalry to fear.  the partner’s sons will never trouble you much, but look out that some boys poorer, much poorer, than yourselves, whose parents cannot afford to give them any schooling, do not challenge you at the post and pass you at the grand stand.  Look out for the boy who has to plunge into work direct from the common school, and begins by sweeping out the office.  He is the probable dark horse that will take all the money and win all the applause.”


Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw. The Penguin Press, New York, 2006
How They Succeeded by Orison Swett Marden.  Lothrop Publishing Company, Boston, 1901.

Posted on:

Comments are closed.