Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Andrew Carnegie, A Poor Boy Once Borrowed Books, Now Gives Away Libraries

Selfish wealth stands surprised, amazed, almost indignant, at the announcement that Andrew Carnegie, instead of resting in Olympian luxury on the millions he has earned, and going to the grave with his gold tightly clutched in his stiffening fingers, proposes to expend the bulk of his riches, during his lifetime, for the benefit of his fellowmen. Great financiers, who, if they lived to be as old as Methuselah, could not use a tithe of their vast fortunes on their own ordinary maintenance, protest against Mr. Carnegie's plan of action, and declare that he ought to go on accumulating to the last. Others mildly suggest that his charity will be wasted on unworthy objects, and others frankly avow that they doubt the sincerity of his intentions. Altogether it may be said that Mr. Carnegie has stirred the very heart of Mammon as it has not been stirred since the Savior told the rich man to sell what he had and give to the poor.


"There is no doubt," said Mr. Carnegie, in reply to a question from me, "that it is becoming harder and harder, as business gravitates more and more to immense concerns, for a young man without capital to get a start for himself, and in large cities it is especially so, where large capital is essential. Still it can be honestly said that there is no other country in the world, where able and energetic young men and women can so readily rise as in this. A president of a business college informed me, recently, that he has never been able to supply the demand for capable, first-class [Mark the adjective] bookkeepers, and his college has over nine hundred students. In America, young men of ability rise with most astonishing rapidity."

'As quickly as when you were a boy ?"

"Much more so. When I was a boy, there were but very few important positions that a boy could aspire to. Everything had to be made. Now a boy doesn't need to make the place, —all he has to do is to fit himself to take it."

"Did you make your high places as you went along ?"

"I shouldn't call them high, and I did not make the earliest ones. In starting new enterprises, of course, I made my place at the head of them. The earliest ones were the poorest kinds of positions, however."

"Where did you begin life?"

"In Dunfermline, Scotland. That was only my home during my earliest years. The service of my life has all been in this country."

"In Pittsburg?"

"Largely so. My father settled in Allegheny City, when I was only ten years old, and I began to earn my way in Pittsburg."

"Do you mind telling me what your first service was ?"

"Not at all. I was a bobbin boy in a cotton factory, then an engine-man or boy in the same place, and later still I was a messenger boy for a telegraph company."


"At small wages, I suppose."

"One dollar and twenty cents a week was what I received as a bobbin boy, and I can tell you that I considered it pretty good, at that. When I was thirteen, I had learned to run a steam engine, and for that I received a dollar and eighty cents a week."

"You had no early schooling, then?"

"None, except such as I gave myself. They were no fine libraries then, but in Allegheny City, where I lived, there was a certain Colonel Anderson, who was well to do and of a philanthropic turn. He announced about the time I first began to work, that he would be in his library at his home, every Saturday, ready to lend books to working boys and men. He only had about four hundred volumes, but I doubt if ever so few books were put to better use. Only he who has longed, as I did, for Saturday to come, that the spring of knowledge might be opened anew to him, can understand what Colonel Anderson did for me and others of the boys of Allegheny. Quite a number of them have risen to eminence, and I think their rise can be easily traced to this splendid opportunity."

"How long did you remain an engine boy?"

"Not very long," Mr. Carnegie replied, "perhaps a year."

"And then?"

"I entered a telegraph office as a messenger boy."

Although Mr. Carnegie would not dwell much on this period, he once described it at a dinner given in honor of the American Consul at Dunfermline, Scotland, when he said — "I awake from a dream that has carried me away back in the days of my boyhood, the day when the little white-haired Scottish laddie, dressed in a blue jacket, walked with his father into the telegraph office in Pittsburg to undergo examination as an applicant for a position as messenger boy.


"Well I remember when my uncle spoke to my parents about it, and my father objected, because I was then getting one dollar and eighty cents per week for running a small engine in a cellar in Allegheny City, but my uncle said a messenger's wages would be two dollars and fifty cents, ... If you want an idea as to heaven on earth, imagine what it is to be taken from a dark cellar, where I fired the boiler from morning until night, and dropped into an office, where light shone from all sides, and around me books, papers, and pencils in profusion, and oh! the tick of those mysterious brass instruments on the desk, annihilating space and standing with throbbing spirits ready to convey any intelligence to the world! This was my first glimpse of paradise, and I walked on air."

"How did you manage to rise from this position ?"

"Well, I learned how to operate a telegraph instrument, and then waited my opportunity to show that I was fit to be an operator. Eventually my chance came, as everyone's does."

The truth is that the boy had the appearance of one anxious to learn and quick to understand. James D. Reid, the superintendent of the office, and himself a Scotchman, favored the ambitious lad, and helped him. In his "History of the Telegraph," he says of him : — "I liked the boy's looks, and it was easy to see that, though he was little, he was full of spirit. He had not been with me a month when he began to ask whether I would teach him to telegraph. I began to instruct him and found him an apt pupil. He spent all his spare time in practice, sending and receiving by sound and not by tape, as was largely the custom in those days. Pretty soon he could do as well as I could at the key, and then his ambition carried him away beyond doing the drudgery of messenger work."

"As you look back upon it," I said to Mr. Carnegie, "do you consider that so lowly a beginning is better than one a little less trying?"


"For young men starting upon their lifework, it is much the best to begin as I did, at the beginning, and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the present-day leading men of Pittsburg, who rose with me, had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their careers. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business life sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men, unfortunately, miss that salutary branch of early education. Still I would say to the boy who has the genius of the future partner in him, that if by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning, do not hesitate to try your hand at the broom. It does not hurt the newest comer to sweep out the office if necessary."

"Did you?"

"Many's the time. And who do you suppose were my fellow sweepers? David McBargo, afterward superintendent of the Allegheny Valley Railroad; Robert Pitcairn, afterward superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Mr. Moreland, subsequently City Attorney of Pittsburg. We all took turns, two each morning doing the sweeping; and now I remember Davie was so proud of his clean shirt bosom that he used to spread over it an old silk bandana handkerchief which he kept for the purpose, and we other boys thought he was putting on airs. So he was. None of us had a silk handkerchief."

"After you had learned to telegraph, did you consider that you had reached high enough?"

"Not in the least. My father died just at that time, and the burden of the support of the family fell upon me. I became an operator at twenty-five dollars a month, a sum which seemed to me almost a fortune. I earned a little additional money by copying telegraphic messages for the newspapers, and managed to keep the family independent."


More light on this period of Mr. Carnegie's career is given by the "Electric Age," which says: "He was a telegraph operator abreast of older and experienced men; and, although receiving messages by sound was, at that time, forbidden by authority as being unsafe, young Carnegie quickly acquired the art, and he can still stand behind the ticker and understand its language. As an operator, he delighted in full employment and the prompt discharge of business, and a big day's work was his chief pleasure."

"How long did you remain with the telegraph company?"

"Until I was given a place by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company."

"As an operator?"

"At first, until I showed how the telegraph could minister to railroad safety and success. Then I was made secretary to Thomas A. Scott, then superintendent, and not long afterward, when Colonel Scott became vice-president, I was made superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad."

Thinking of this period of his life, I asked Mr. Carnegie if his promotion was not a matter of chance, and whether he did not, at the time, feel it to be so. His answer was emphatic.

"Never. Young men give all kinds of reasons why, in their cases, failure is attributable to exceptional circumstances, which rendered success impossible. Some never had a chance, according to their own story. This is simply nonsense. No young man ever lived who had not a chance, and a splendid chance, too, if he was ever employed at all. He is assayed in the mind of his immediate superior, from the day he begins work, and, after a time, if he has merit, he is assayed in the council chambers of the firm. His ability, honesty, habits associations, temper, disposition—all these are weighed and analyzed. The young man who never had a chance is the same young man who has been canvassed over and over again by his superiors, and found destitute of necessary qualifications, or is deemed unworthy of closer relations with the firm, owing to some objectionable act, habit or association, of which he thought his employers Ignorant."

"It sounds true."


"It is. Another class of young men attribute failure to rise to employers having near relatives or favorites whom they advance unfairly. They also insist that their employers dislike brighter intelligence than their own, and are disposed to discourage aspiring genius, and delighted in keeping young men down. There is nothing in this. On the contrary, there is no one suffering more for lack of the right man in the right place than the average employer, nor anyone more anxious to find him."

"Was this your theory on the subject when you began working for the railroad company ?"

"I had no theory then, although I have formulated one since. It lies mainly in this: Instead of the question, 'What must I do for my employer?' substitute, 'What can I do ?' Faithful and conscientious discharge of duties assigned you is all very well, but the verdict in such cases generally is that you perform your present duties so well, that you would better continue performing them. Now, this will not do. It will not do for the coming partners. There must be something beyond this. We make clerks, bookkeepers, treasurers, bank tellers of this class, and there they remain to the end of the chapter. The rising man must do something exceptional, and beyond the range of his special department. He must attract attention."


"How can he do that?"

"Well, if he is a shipping clerk, he may do so by discovering in an invoice an error with which he has nothing to do and which has escaped the attention of the proper party. If a weighing clerk, he may save the firm by doubting the adjustment of the scales, and having them corrected, even if this be the province of the master mechanic. If a messenger boy, he can lay the seed of promotion by going beyond the letter of his instructions in order to secure the desired reply. There is no service so low and simple, neither any so high, in which the young man of ability and willing disposition cannot readily and almost daily prove himself capable of greater trust and usefulness, and, what is equally important, show his invincible determination to rise."

"In what manner did you reach out to establish your present great fortune ?" I asked.

"By saving my money. I put a little money aside, and it served me later as a matter of credit. Also, I invested in a sleeping-car industry, which paid me well."


Although I tried earnestly to get the great iron-king to talk of this, he said little, because the matter has been fully dealt with by him in his "Triumphant Democracy." From his own story there, it appears that, one day at this time, when Mr. Carnegie still had his fortune to make, he was on a train examining the line from a rear window of a car, when a tall, spare man, accosted him and asked him to look at an invention he had made. He drew from a green bag a small model of a sleepingberth for railway cars, and proceeded to point out its advantages. It was Mr. T. T. Woodruff, the inventor of the sleeping-car. Mr. Carnegie tells the story himself in "Triumphant Democracy :" — "He had not spoken a moment, before, like a flash, the whole range of the discovery burst upon me. 'Yes,' I said, 'that is something which this continent must have.'

"Upon my return, I laid it before Mr. Scott, declaring that it was one of the inventions of the age. He remarked: 'You are enthusiastic, young man, but you may ask the inventor to come and let me see it.' I did so, and arrangements were made to build two trial cars, and run them on the Pennsylvania Railroad. I was offered an interest in the venture, which, of course, I gladly accepted.

"The notice came that my share of the first payment was $217.50. How well I remember the exact sum ! But two hundred and seventeen dollars and a half were as far beyond my means as if it had been millions. I was earning fifty dollars per month, however, and had prospects, or at least I always felt that I had. I decided to call on the local banker and boldly ask him to advance the sum upon my interest in the affair. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: 'Why, of course, Andie; you are all right. Go ahead ! Here is the money.'

"It is a proud day for a man when he pays his last note, but not to be named in comparison with the day in which he makes his first one, and gets a banker to take it. I have tried both, and I know. The cars paid the subsequent payments from their earnings. I paid my first note from my savings, so much per month, and thus did I get my foot upon fortune's ladder. It was easy to climb after that."

"I would like some expression from you," I said to Mr. Carnegie, "in reference to the importance of laying aside money from one's earnings, as a young man."


"You can have it. There is one sure mark of the coming partner, the future millionaire; his revenues always exceed his expenditures. He begins to save early, almost as soon as he begins to earn. I should say to young men, no matter how little it may be possible to save, save that little. Invest it securely, not necessarily in bonds, but in anything which you have good reason to believe will be profitable; but no gambling with it, remember. A rare chance will soon present itself for investment. The little you have saved will prove the basis for an amount of credit utterly surprising to you. Capitalists trust the saving young man: For, every hundred dollars you can produce as the resuit of hard-won savings, Midas, in search of a partner, will lend or credit a thousand; for every thousand, fifty thousand. It is not capital that your seniors require, it is the man who has proved that he has the business habits which create capital. So it is the first hundred dollars saved that tells."

"What," I asked Mr. Carnegie, "was the next enterprise with which you identified yourself?"


"In company with several others, I purchased the now famous Storey farm, on Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, where a well had been bored and natural oil struck the year before. This proved a very profitable investment."

"Were you satisfied to rest with these enterprises in your hands ?" I asked.

"No ; railway bridges were then built almost exclusively of wood, but the Pennsylvania Railroad had begun to experiment with cast iron for bridge building. It struck me that the railway bridge of the future must be of iron, and I organized, in Pittsburg, a company for the construction of iron bridges. That was the Keystone Bridge Works. We built the first iron bridge across the Ohio."

His entrance to the realm of steel was much too long for Mr. Carnegie to discuss, although he was not unwilling to give information relating to the great subject. It appears that he realized the immensity of the steel manufacturing business at once. The Union Iron Mills soon followed as one of his enterprises, and, later the famous Edgar Thompson Steel Rail Mill. The last was the outcome of a visit to England, in 1868, when Carnegie noticed that English railways were discarding iron for steel rails. The Bessemer process had been then perfected, and was making its way in all the iron producing countries. Carnegie, recognizing that it was destined to revolutionize the iron business, introduced it into his mills and made steel rails with which he was enabled to compete with English manufacturers.


His next enterprise was the purchase of the Homestead Steel Works, —his great rival of Pittsburg. By 1888, he had built or acquired seven distinct iron and steel works. All the plants of this great firm are within a radius of five miles of Pittsburg. In no other part of the world can be found such an aggregation of splendidly equipped steel works as those controlled by Carnegie and his associates. It now comprises the Homestead Steel Works, the Edgar Thompson Steel Works and Furnaces, the Duquesne Steel Works and Furnaces, all within two miles of one another; the Lucy Furnaces, the Keystone Bridge Works, the Upper Union Rolling Mills, and the Lower Union Rolling Mills.

In all branches, including the great coke works, mines, etc., there are employed twenty-five thousand men. The monthly pay roll exceeds one million, one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, or nearly fifty thousand dollars for each working day.

"You believe in taking active measures," I said, "to make men successful."

"Yes, I believe in anything which will help men to help themselves. To induce them to save, every workman in our company is allowed to deposit part of his earnings, not exceeding two thousand dollars, with the firm, on which the high interest rate of six per cent, is allowed. The firm also lends to any of its workmen to buy a lot, or to build a house, taking its pay by installments."

"Has this contributed any to the success of your company?"


"I think so. The policy of giving a personal interest to the men who render exceptional service is strengthening. With us there are many such, and every year several more are added as partners. It is the policy of the concern to interest every superintendent in the works, every head of a department, every exceptional young man. Promotion follows exceptional service, and there is no favoritism,"

"All you have said so far merely gives the idea of getting money, without any suggestion as to the proper use of great wealth. Will you say something on that score?"

"My views are rather well known, I think. What a man owns is already subordinate, in America, to what he knows; but, in the final aristocracy, the question will not be either of these, but what has he done for his fellows? Where has he shown generosity and self abnegation? Where has he been a father to the fatherless? And the cause of the poor; where has he searched that out? How he has worshipped God will not be asked in that day, but how he has served man."


That Mr. Carnegie has lived up, in the past, and is still living up to this radical declaration of independence from the practice of men who have amassed fortunes around him, will be best shown by a brief enumeration of some of his almost unexampled philanthropies. His largest gift has been to the city of Pittsburg, the scene of his early trials and later triumphs. There he has built, at a cost of more than a million dollars, a magnificent library, museum, concert hall and picture gallery, all under one roof, and endowed it with a fund of another million, the interest of which (fifty thousand dollars per annum), is being devoted to the purchase of the best works of American art. Other libraries, to be connected with this largest as a center, are now being constructed, which will make the city of Pittsburg and its environs a beneficiary of his generosity to the extent of five million dollars.

In his native land; Scotland, thrift is a virtue that is taught with the alphabet; and, when the twelve-year-old "Andy" Carnegie came to America with his father and mother, he was full of the notion of thrift and its twin brother, hard work.


Once he wrote on the subject of thrift for a Scottish journal. He said : — "The accumulation of millions is usually the result of enterprise and judgment, and some exceptional ability or organization. It does not come from savings, in the ordinary sense of the word. Men who, in old age, strive only to increase their already too great hoards, are usually slaves of the habit of hoarding, formed in their youth. At first they own the money they have made and saved. Later in life the money owns them, and they cannot help themselves, so overpowering is the force of habit, either for good or evil. It is the abuse of the civilized saving instinct, and not its use, that produces this class of men. No one needs to be afraid of falling a victim to this abuse of the habit, if he always bears in mind that whatever surplus wealth may come to him is to be regarded as a sacred trust, which he is bound to administer for the good of his fellows. The man should always be master. He should keep money in the position of a useful servant; he must never let it be his master and make a miser of him. A man's first duty is to acquire a competence and be independent, then to do something for his needy neighbors who are less favored than himself."

Mr, Carnegie has always lived up to this doctrine. He has made philanthropy a factor of existence. Already he has endowed over ninety libraries in different cities of the United States, having spent about $4,500,000 in this manner alone. He believes that a man can learn the science of true life and success in good books. In Scotland, where many of the residents of a poor hamlet have been benefited by his generosity, he is called "the good angel." Whenever he visits any of these places, he is a greater man than the King of Great Britain.

While thus endowing the city where his fortune was made, he has not forgotten other places endeared to him by association or by interest. To the Allegheny Free Library he has given $375,000; to the Braddock Free Library, $350,000 ; to the Johnstown Free Library, $50,000, and to the Fairfield (Iowa) Library, $40,000. To his native land he has been scarcely less generous. To the Edinburgh Free Library he has given $250,000, and to his native town of Dunfermline, $90,000. Other Scottish towns to the number of ten have received helpful donations of amounts not quite so large.

"I should like you to say some other important things for the young man to learn and benefit by."

"Our young partners in the Carnegie company have all won their spurs by showing that we did not know half as well what was wanted as they did. Some of them have acted upon occasions with me as if they owned the firm and I was but some airy New Yorker, presuming to advise upon what I knew very httle about. Well, they are not now interfered with. They were the true bosses,—the very men we were looking for."


"Is this all for the poor boy?"

"Every word. I trust that few, if any, of your readers have the misfortune to be rich men's sons. They are heavily weighted in the race. A basketful of bonds is the heaviest basket a young man ever had to carry. He generally gets to staggering under it. The vast majority of rich men's sons are unable to resist the temptations to which wealth subjects them, and they sink to unworthy lives. It is not from this class that the poor beginner has rivalry to fear. The partner's sons will never trouble you much, but look out that some boys poorer, much poorer, than yourselves, whose parents cannot afford to give them any schooling, do not challenge you at the post and pass you at the grand stand. Look out for the boy who has to plunge into work direct from the common school, and begins by sweeping out the office. He is the probable dark horse that will take all the money and win all the applause.

"The first thing that a man should learn to do is to save his money. By saving his money he promotes thrift, —the most valued of all habits. Thrift is the great fortune-maker. It draws the line between the savage and the civilized man. Thrift not only develops the fortune, but it develops, also, the man's character."

«— Chapter 2, Hiram Stevens Maxim || Index Page || Chapter 4, Charles M. Schwab —»