Andrew Carnegie, avatar of the Industrial Revolution. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In Carnegie's Improbable Life, a Parable of Capitalism

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By Peter A. Coclanis

By any standard, Andrew Carnegie, who died 93 years ago today, was one of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history. He was also among the most improbable: Perhaps no other life so vividly illuminates the awesome and often vicious power of capitalism's creative destruction.

Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835, Carnegie immigrated to the U.S. with his economically struggling parents and siblings in 1848. The family settled in Pittsburgh, where they had relatives. After brief stints in a textile mill and a bobbin factory, Andrew found work in a telegraph office. There he rose quickly, and by 1851, at age 16, he had become a full-time operator, earning a salary sufficient to support a family.

Smart and ambitious, Carnegie left in 1853 to move to another high-tech industry, railroading. He took a job as secretary and personal telegrapher for the superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He helped build the railroad into the most advanced and sophisticated transportation company in the world, and the pioneer of many of the managerial and organizational practices that came to characterize big business in the U.S. for decades to come.

After moving to Wall Street in 1865, Carnegie was as successful in finance as he had been in transportation. But it was in late 1872 when he made the move for which he's best known today. He set up a company in the Pittsburgh area to manufacture steel, which subsequently formed the basis for the Carnegie Steel Co. -- the U.S.'s first great manufacturing "Big Business." Carnegie Steel made its founder fabulously wealthy and internationally famous. When he sold the company in 1901, it formed the most important part of the entity that became known as U.S. Steel.

Then, from 1901 until his death in 1919, Carnegie devoted himself to philanthropy, systematically giving away the money that he had so assiduously, and aggressively, fought to make.

So what was so improbable about his rise? Many things, actually, ranging from his fortuitous early immersion in the telegraph and railroad industries -- which were establishing before his young eyes the rudiments of a national market -- to the uncanny number of Scots and Scots-dominated networks he was able to tap for aid during his "will to power."

But the most improbable aspect of his rise was probably the way in which it diverged from the experience of his father, Will, who was broken by the very forces his son so avidly embraced.

Will Carnegie, born in 1805, was a skilled weaver of damask linen in Dunfermline. He was committed both to his craft and, as a so-called Chartist, to political and social reform, particularly to expanding voting rights for artisans and other male workers. Dunfermline was a hotbed of Chartism in the 1830s -- it was renowned for its radicalism -- and Carnegie was in the thick of it.

He prospered as an independent weaver until the late 1830s, when the Industrial Revolution -- and, more specifically, mechanization and steam power -- arrived in Dunfermline. By the mid-1840s the town's artisanal weaving industry, and Carnegie's business, had been destroyed. As he poignantly lamented to his young son in 1847, a year before the family left Scotland: "Andra, I can get nae mair work."

Will Carnegie, alas, also found little work in the U.S., which had even less use for handloom weavers. He spun his wheels for a short time in a cotton mill, and then subsisted on itinerant peddling before dying a broken man in October 1855. Luckily for the Carnegies, Will's wife, Margaret, through both luck and pluck pulled the family through. In time, her son Andrew became in many ways the avatar of the Industrial Revolution -- the same socioeconomic process that destroyed the man she had wed in Scotland and buried in western Pennsylvania.

(Peter A. Coclanis is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Aug/10/2012 21:14 GMT