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The Richest Man in the World

By Michael Gill | HUMANITIES, January/February 1997 | Volume 18, Number 1

"Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves."

It was a phrase so familiar to Andrew Carnegie during his childhood in Dunfermline, Scotland, that when asked to recite a proverb in school one day, those were the first words that came to mind.

They would become a blueprint for his rise from an impoverished childhood to railroad company executive, steel company mogul, and, eventually, the richest man in the world.

In his rise to power, Carnegie would preside over one of the darker chapters in American labor history. Later, the image would shift to that of great philanthropist, endowing libraries and concert halls for generations to come, giving away 350 million dollars in his lifetime.

His story is told in The Richest Man in the World, a two-hour documentary airing in January. It examines the life of Carnegie against the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the upheaval that transformed both Carnegie and the world he lived in.

For those who remembered him for the horrors of the industries he owned, there were others who remembered him for his largesse. And for every worker who considered him a villain, there was a mother who wanted her son to grow up to be just like Andrew Carnegie.

Born in 1835, Carnegie experienced a life of poignant contrasts. He was twelve when new steam-powered looms arrived in his hometown. The looms, which could mass-produce fabric at a cost far below that of the handworkers like his father, drove the family into poverty. Carnegie's mother mended shoes to feed and clothe the family. The Carnegies looked for escape to America.

Young Andrew became a stoker in a Pittsburgh textile factory at age thirteen, then a telegraph messenger; by age seventeen he was making the princely sum of thirty-five dollars a month as assistant to a superintendent on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

When there was a train wreck while his boss was away, Carnegie assumed command, wrote orders, and signed them with his superior's initials. Althought the boss scowled at first, he was actually pleased with the lad's showing initiative, and with that, Carnegie began to implement his ideas even more freely, climbing the company ladder by cutting costs.

He pioneered the practice of burning derailed train cars rather than salvaging them; it cleared the tracks more quickly and soon became common practice. He pushed for bigger cars, more powerful locomotives, longer trains, and bigger loads. He foresaw the need to replace wooden bridges with iron bridges to carry the heavier trains; so he formed a company to build them.

By 1881 he was wealthy enough to return with his widowed mother in triumph to Dunfermline, riding through the streets in a showy coach.

But Carnegie found life less than complete. He vowed to work only two more years and then begin to give his wealth away. It was to take much longer, however. A newly developed process for making steel caught Carnegie's eye and would keep him building his fortune over the next thirty-two years.

The Bessemer process, Carnegie realized, meant that steel could be mass-produced. The age of iron was over, and the puddlers who had formed steel by hand were about to become as obsolete as his own father had.

The film follows Carnegie through his introduction of large- scale steel production and through the notorious Homestead strike, which left seven strikers and three company-hired Pinkerton guards dead, and left the steel workers largely unorganized for the next forty years.

Carnegie retreated to the Scottish highlands, eventually purchasing a castle called Skibo. Meanwhile, his plants thrived. By 1900 his American factories were producing more steel than all of Great Britain.

When Wall Street financier J.P. Morgan began mounting competition for Carnegie, Carnegie felt he could prevail. The question was whether he wanted to. At sixty-five, Carnegie wanted to start to make good on his promise to give his fortune away. In 1901, he sold his steel company to Morgan for 480 million dollars, clearing the way for Morgan to create U.S. Steel and making Andrew Carnegie the richest man in the world.

With that sale, the second phase of Carnegie's life began-- that of philanthropist. A man who dies rich, Carnegie said, dies in shame. He gave money to build thousands of libraries across the United States. He provided private pensions for numbers of people, ranging from unknown boyhood friends to celebrities such as Rudyard Kipling and Booker T. Washington. He endowed the Carnegie Teachers Pension Fund with $10 million.

Still, his fortune kept growing. In 1911, with $125 million, he established the Carnegie Corporation "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge among the people of the United States." On his seventy-fifth birthday in 1910, he gave $10 million to create the Carnegie Endowment "to hasten the abolition of war." His dream of peace was to be shattered, however; in a few short years World War I broke out. Carnegie lived to see the war's end. He died in 1919 at the age of eighty-three.

The film, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, opens the ninth season for WGBH-Boston and The American Experience series.

WGBH executive producer Austin Hoyt, who wrote and directed the Carnegie documentary, says: "Having done the presidential portraits, we chose to do this one because between the Civil War up until Roosevelt, the important people were not presidents but industrial statesmen, or the robber barons, depending on your perspective."

To capture the flavor of the industrial revolution, the film uses both stills and contemporary footage to give movement to events that occurred before the age of video. At one point, for instance, as the documentary describes Carnegie's introduction to the Bessemer process, the footage is of a present-day Bessemer mill in Russia.

"When you're portraying history," senior producer Margaret Drain adds, "you also have to give people context. "Otherwise, people don't have anything to refer to. People wouldn't know that before Carnegie there weren't machines to do most work. Or if you're describing the building of the transcontinental railroad, you have to make it clear that the rails were laid by hand without jackhammers. The closer you get to our time, the less you have to explain."

With few photographs available, filmmakers of historical documentaries face a particular challenge. "You have to piece together in a very artful way little snippets of archival film," Drain says. "We also use old photographs which, oddly enough, are very evocative." She adds, "A camera moving over a still photo is actually preferable to film. Stills are evocative. The old portraits capture every emotional wave."

About the Author

Michael J. Gill is a freelance writer from North Olmsted, Ohio.

Funding Information

The Richest Man in the World is to air January 20 on public television. It received major support from the Division of Public Programs.