Friday, November 26, 2010

Andrew Carnegie

Because of my focus in yesterday's post on the Thanksgiving holiday, I neglected to note another significant event that occurred on November 25th: the anniversary of the birth of one of the most fascinating figures in modern American history.

Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 in Dunfirmline, Scotland, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1848, settling in my home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Young Andrew found work as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, bringing empty bobbins to the girls working at the looms, collecting the full bobbins of spun cotton thread, and fixing minor problems with the machines - all for the princely salary of $1.20 per week. He loved reading, and took advantage of the generosity of a local gentleman, Col. James Anderson, who allowed working boys to borrow books from his extensive personal library. Most of Andrew's education came from these books while he worked his way through a series of jobs from bobbin boy to messenger boy in the city's telegraph office, to superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Carnegie ultimately made his fortune in steel, introducing the Bessemer steel making process to America and, in 1875, opening his largest steel plant, the Edgar Thompson Works, in Braddock, Pennsylvania. In 1899, he combined several of his business interests to form the Carnegie Steel Company, which immediately became a leader in the steel industry.

A man of contradictions, Andrew Carnegie was a consummate robber baron, wielding his economic and political power ruthlessly to build his empire, although he had privately decided eventually to give away his fortune for the betterment of his fellow man.

In 1901, Carnegie sold his empire to financier J.Pierpoint Morgan for $400 million and retired from business life as the richest man in the world. He turned from industry to philanthropy, and by the time of his death in 1919 had given away over $350 million to establish more than 3,000 public libraries across the country, requiring only that the libraries inscribe phrases like "Free Library" or "Free to the People" over their entrances, so that they would always remain free. He also gave money for museums and concert halls (including Carnegie Hall in New York City), and founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now known as Carnegie Mellon University).

You can't grow up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, without knowing something about Andrew Carnegie, if only his name applied to a section of the city. As a boy with a love of reading, I enjoyed the wonderful Carnegie Library (which, true to Mr Carnegie's demand, is proudly marked as being "Free to the People Since 1895").

One more thing to be thankful for in this Thanksgiving season - free public libraries, courtesy of one of the most interesting and contradictory men ever to rise, in true American tradition, from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power and wealth.

Have a good day. Visit a free public library.

More thoughts tomorrow.



Bandit said...

This is a fact that you and Mike need to know for your continuing education possibilities. At Canregie Mellon, you can earn a degree in Bagpipes, set up by the good Scotsman.

Mike said...

I don't use my library card enough and they wind up canceling it on me. Use it or lose it sucks.

@Bandit - Can you specialize in drone?

Amanda said...

Interesting and inspiring story. I definitely am a big fan of the free public libraries. Its like my family's second home.

KathyA said...

Good to know that the man had such a public conscience.