Andew Carnegie: From poverty to the world’s richest man

Andrew Carnegie was the fascinating subject of a recent talk by Playwright David Dewar to Largs Probus Club. David gave an excellent synopsis of how this second son, born into a poor family from Dunfermline in 1835, became the richest man in the world. 

When Carnegie was 12, his family emigrated to the USA in search of a better life. In America he found employment in a cotton factory earning $1.20 for 70 hours of work per week, then moved on to work as a messenger in a Telegraph Office before becoming a Personal Telegrapher to Thomas Scott, a Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railway Company. He was so efficient that he ran the Company in Scott’s absence and became Superintendent of the Company on a salary of $1,500 a year when Scott left. It was Scott who introduced him to buying stocks in the railways and related industries. By the age of 30, Carnegie had amassed business interests in iron works, railroads, and oil wells and had built the Carnegie Steel Corporation into the largest steel manufacturing company in the world by using new methods, efficient management, and paying his workers poorly. He considered himself tough but fair with his workers, but he was staunchly anti-trade unions, which led to a bloody confrontation lasting 143 days in 1892 at the Carnegie Steel’s main plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. 

Throughout his life Carnegie would defer to his mother and only married his long-term love, Louise Whitfield, when his mother died in 1886. Carnegie was 51 and Louise 21 years his junior. They had one child in 1897, named Margaret after his mother.

During his lifetime, Carnegie gave away over $350 million of what he called “excess wealth” to public causes, just as he had outlined in his 1889 manifesto The Gospel of Wealth, providing funding for over 2,500 public libraries and over 7,700 Church pipe organs to “lessen the pain of the sermon”. Carnegie held the view that “a man who dies rich dies disgraced” i.e. the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes.

Carnegie purchased Skibo Castle and visited Scotland annually. A supporter of pacifism, he set up the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to tackle the most difficult global problems and safeguard peace. He died in 1919 of bronchial pneumonia. 

Bill Young thanked David for his excellent talk on a true rag to riches character.

Largs PROBUS Club will next meet in the Willowbank Hotel on Wednesday 24th  January at 12.30pm for their annual Burns Lunch.

Men over the age of 50 who are retired, or nearing retirement, are welcome to join the Club by completing our Contact Form.