Be Like Carnegie: Steel Tycoon & Philanthropist

Andrew Carnegie

“The man who dies rich thus dies disgraced.”

Andrew Carnegie

There’s few examples of great effort, leading to great wealth, leading to great impact, quite as good as the story of Andrew Carnegie’s life. We’re taking a look at him as an example of why great wealth, wisely deployed, can make a huge difference beyond just the earner’s personal enrichment.

Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, Andrew Carnegie first stepped foot in America at age 13 with his parents Will and Margaret Carnegie. Having sold all their belongings to make it to the United States in 1848, the immigrant Carnegie family had nothing to their name in America.

From there, a true rags-to-riches story began. The 13-year-old boy Andrew Carnegie would grow up to become the father of the mammoth American steel industry and also the wealthiest man alive.

It’s been over a century since he died, but his legacy lives on — not for his riches — but for his unmatched and pioneering philanthropic career.

His road to riches was paved with steel.

Andrew Carnegie used to work at Pennsylvania Railroad under Thomas A. Scott, who was the superintendent of its western division. Thomas A. Scott initiated Carnegie’s first-ever significantly profitable investment by telling him about the upcoming sale of ten Adams Express Company shares.  

Andrew Carnegie’s mother, Margaret Carnegie, obtained a $500 loan by mortgaging their house to go all-in on these shares. This risky course of action paid off for the Carnegie family in spades.

During his time at the railroad, Carnegie had gotten several business ideas and interests. One of his noticeable investments was with Theodore Woodruff, who presented a promising idea of railway sleeping cars, offering Carnegie shares in his company.

Carnegie had a sharp business sense and fully believed in Woofruff’s idea and obtained a bank loan to secure those shares. Later on, he would buy the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company in its entirety.

By 30, Carnegie had his hands in many different industries, including railroads, oil wells, and also ironworks. He also got involved in steel production and, perhaps most notably, built his own company — the Carnegie Steel Corporation — from the ground up. It would later grow into the world’s largest steel manufacturing company.

Carnegie’s Philanthropy

Carnegie’s philanthropic career was just as notable as his industrial one, if not more-so. In 1901, he decided to sell his companies to J.P. Morgan for an estimated sum of $480 million, making him the richest man alive at the time. However, he didn’t liquefy his businesses for that title or any other personal material gain, but to fuel his philanthropic ventures.

In his 1899 essay, The Gospel of Wealth — which is now seen as a foundational piece of philanthropic thought — Carnegie shared his views about wealth inequality quite openly.

He voiced his opinion that the self-made rich and the upper-class have a responsibility for philanthropy. His primary proposition was to reduce the stratification and gap between the poor and rich by having the latter redistribute their fortune rather than transferring it to heirs and building generational wealth.

For the rest of his life, Carnegie certainly practiced what he preached in that essay. Once he retired from business, his goal was to distribute his fortune to meaningful projects. 

He funded many libraries, paid for countless church organs around the world, and helped establish various schools, colleges, non-profit associations, and organizations. 

One of his biggest philanthropic contributions — both in terms of impact and financial cost — was setting up numerous institutions and trusts under his own name. Examples include 

  • The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland,
  • Carnegie Foundation (to Support the Peace Palace)
  • Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh
  • Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Carnegie UK Trust
  • Carnegie Dunfermline Trust
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

He founded a total of 2,500 libraries throughout his generous journey of giving. 1,670 of these were situated in his adoptive United States, whereas 830 of them were outside of the US. He spent a whopping $55 million of his fortune on libraries — and received a well-earned moniker – the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”

The First Carnegie Library in the US in Braddock, PA

Why Libraries?

There were two major reasons behind Carnegie’s unconditional love for libraries. 

  1. Carnegie believed that anyone could be successful as long as they had a desire to learn and access to books — which was the basic formula of his own success.
  2. Since Carnegie was an immigrant, he had personally felt how essential it was for newcomers on American soil to equip themselves with the necessary cultural knowledge. At the time, a library was the only place that could offer an in-depth look at a country’s history, traditions, culture, and norms.

Of the two, Carnegie clearly stated that the first reason was of utmost importance. In Pittsburgh, he had to work long hours for a living and understood the crippling feeling of having no access to education, especially when there’s a desire to learn, grow, and succeed. 

The only way Carnegie could manage to educate himself back then was through books loaned to him by Colonel Anderson from his small library. He was a retired merchant and later got a well-deserved written tribute from Andrew Carnegie in which he expressed his deep gratitude for what Anderson did for him and his friends at the time.

The Peace Palace & “The War To End All Wars”

Peace Palace
The Peace Palace, Home of the International Court of Justice

“Whoso wants to share the heroism of battle, let him join the fight against ignorance and disease and the mad idea that war is necessary.”

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie had a new and bigger goal toward the end of his life, which was to achieve world peace. He believed that international laws and mediation could help humanity save itself from future conflicts and the evil of war. 

Even for this goal, he continued to use his wealth as a tool to make the world a better place. In 1903, he helped found the Peace Palace in The Hague 1903. He also donated $10 million to found his Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910 with an objective to abolish war. 

He worked tirelessly to achieve these noble goals, only to see Word War I break out — which left him heartbroken. He passed away on 11th August 1919.

A Life Well-Lived.

Andrew Carnegie had a simple philosophy on how people should spend their lives. 

Dividing life into three sections, of which the first should be spent seeking education, the second building wealth, and the third on redistributing it to society through philanthropy. 

That’s in many ways a summary of Carnegie’s own life — and looking at his legacy and enormous impact on the world — it’s safe to say that it’s not a bad life plan.

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