A Foreign Affair: Carnegie Comes to America

“You cannot push anyone up the ladder unless he is willing to climb,” said Andrew Carnegie. Indeed, Carnegie was more than willing to climb that ladder, reaching new heights of success in his adopted home of America. As founder of the multi-million dollar Carnegie Steel Company and one of the most generous philanthropists in history, Carnegie established his legacy as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history.

On November 25, 1835, Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. His father, William was a politically active handloom weaver who fought for such things as workplace safety laws, reform of the British House of Commons and the abolition of monarchies. William had grown up poor but educated himself and thus insisted that his children receive an education. Carnegie’s uncle, George Lauder, was a grocery store owner whose beliefs about the strength of the democratic institutions in the U.S. would later greatly influence Carnegie.

“I began to learn what poverty meant,” Carnegie would later write. “It was burnt into my heart then that my father had to beg for work. And then and there came the resolve that I would cure that when I got to be a man.” When steam engines began to replace the handloom and William’s father found it increasingly difficult to find a job, the family decided to emigrate to the U.S. They borrowed £20 from friends for the passage and never looked back. Soon, both father and son had found work at a cotton factory in Pennsylvania. 13-year-old Carnegie stayed there for one year, earning $1.20 per week. He then became a messenger for a local telegraph company, where his talents were spotted by the superintendent Thomas A. Scott and he was subsequently appointed secretary.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Carnegie became the war’s first casualty when he pulled up telegraph wires that had been buried and got a scar on his cheek from doing it too fast. Scott, who was also the Assistant U.S. Secretary of War, had asked Carnegie to go to the front with him. After the Civil War, Carnegie succeeded Scott as superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Here, he made a number of shrewd investments, including the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company and several iron mills and factories. It was during his frequent visits to England that Carnegie realized steel would soon replace iron.

As Carnegie’s investments continued to prosper, so too did his reputation throughout the upper echelons of American society. In addition to his good business sense, Carnegie was known for his charm and literary knowledge – something that his Uncle Lauder had instilled in him. Presidents and Prime Ministers were among those in his close circle of friends. Like his father, Carnegie became a regular contributor of many notable magazines and also wrote his own works, Round the World (1881), An American Four-in-Hand in Britain (1883), and Triumphant Democracy (1886).

By the mid-1880s, Carnegie was undoubtedly a success, but it would pale in comparison to the success he would soon create for himself in the budding steel industry.

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