Scotland born and American bred, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) gave away 90% of the vast fortune he earned as one of the great US industrialists. His worth is estimated at $309 billion in today’s currency. To put this in perspective, Bill Gates’s fortune is a mere $136 billion. Carnegie’s philosophy was ‘Try to make the world in some way better than you found it’ and at the end of his life he had funded the construction of 3000 public libraries and the hall that bears his name in New York.
Carnegie was born in a humble croft in Dunfermline to abject poverty. His father was a weaver and his mother a cobbler. The family moved to America instilling in Carnegie a belief that ‘the emigrant is the capable, energetic, ambitious, discontented man’. Aged thirteen, he got a job as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill but by 1850 had progressed to being a telegraph messenger in the Pittsburgh office of the Ohio Telegraph Company. He educated himself in the library of Colonel James Anderson who allowed him access to the 400-volume collection on Saturday evenings hence Carnegie’s support for public libraries in later life.
In 1853, Carnegie was employed as a secretary/telegraph operator in the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and worked his way up to a position as manager. He invested his first $500 in Adams Express and accumulated capital as a result. His boss Thomas A. Scott became American Transport Secretary of War in charge of military transportation during the American Civil War. In 1864, Carnegie invested $40,000 in the Story Farm on Oil Creek that yielded over a million dollars’ worth of petroleum. Leaving the railroad industry, he invested in steel rolling mills. Paying himself $50,000 per annum, he resolved to ‘spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes’.
The bulk of Carnegie’s fortune was made in the mass production of steel. His company, Carnegie Steel, was the biggest manufacturer of pig iron in the world. His private life was uneventful compared to his self-made peers such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Whitneys. He remained unmarried until the death of his mother in 1886 after which he wed Luise Whitfield and they had one daughter, Margaret. By now, Carnegie was the second richest man in America after John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil. In 1901 he sold out to J. P. Morgan for $480 million. It was alleged that Walt Disney’s Scrooge McDuck was inspired by Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie was a pacifist, a staunch republican and an atheist. In a note to himself written in 1868, he wrote ‘the amassing of wealth is one of the worse species of idolatry: no idol more debasing than the worship of money’. In 1880 Carnegie returned to Dunfermline and donated $40,000 to build a library and a public swimming bath. Touring Scotland by coach in 1881, Carnegie bought Skibo Castle as his British retreat. His mansion in New York at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue is the reason the Upper East Side is named Carnegie Hill.
Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic activities centred on libraries, education, science and world peace. In addition to his libraries, he established the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and was elected Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews. He also founded the Carnegie Institute for Science, the Carnegie Hero Fund and the Carnegie Mellon University. His biographer Joseph Wall believed ‘maybe with the giving away of his money, he would justify what he had done to get that money’ which wasn’t without controversy. Carnegie was a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club that was blamed for the Johnstown Flood of 1889 that killed over 2000 people when a dam burst. The blame for ten men’s deaths in the 1892 Homestead Strike was laid at his door.
When Carnegie died in 1919 there was a surfeit of $30 million yet to be given away to charity. He is buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery in New York. Carnegie Hall, constructed in 1891, is one of the world’s greatest concert venue and has played host to Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba, Winston Churchill, Rachmaninov, Charlie Chaplin, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, The Beatles, Maria Callas, Liza Minnelli and David Bowie.
Carnegie wrote his own epitaph: ‘man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving from lack of the nutrient which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen and many so called poor men who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich’.