Business Leaders: A Historical Sketch of Andrew Carnegie

By Wren, Daniel A.; Greenwood, Ronald G. | Journal of Leadership Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Business Leaders: A Historical Sketch of Andrew Carnegie


Wren, Daniel A., Greenwood, Ronald G., Journal of Leadership Studies


Between the Civil War and 1899 Horatio Alger wrote more than a hundred books with titles such as Bound to Rise, Luck and Pluck, Sink or Swim, and Tom, the Bootblack. At least twenty million copies were sold, and the name Horatio Alger became synonymous with a success story. Alger's plots typically involved a young but poor hero who worked his way to wealth by the virtues of diligence, honesty, perseverance, and thrift. Alger's model could well have been Andrew Carnegie, born on November 25, 1835, in Dunfermline, Scotland, the elder of the two sons of William and Margaret Morrison Carnegie. William Carnegie had been a hand-loom weaver, but the coming of water-powered looms led to his unemployment and the family emigrated to America in 1848, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Andrew's first job was as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill for $1.20 per week; his next was as a messenger, delivering telegrams for $2.50 a week. The telegraph, invented by Samuel F.B. Morse a few years earlier, fascinated Andrew and he taught himself Morse code and how to operate the telegrapher's key.

When Carnegie was seventeen, another opportunity arose, a position on the Pennsylvania Railroad as the personal telegrapher of Thomas A. Scott, superintendent of the railroad's Western Division, for $35 per month. Carnegie learned fast and made his mark one day when he untangled a traffic tie-up after a derailment. As he recalled:

   The railway was single line. Telegraph orders to trains often became
   necessary, although it was not then a regular practice to run trains by
   telegraph. No one but the superintendent himself was permitted to give a
   train order on any part of the Pennsylvania system ...

   One morning I reached the office and found that a serious accident on the
   Eastern Division had delayed the express passenger train westward, and that
   the passenger train eastward was proceeding with a flagman in advance at
   every curve. The freight trains in both directions were all standing still
   upon the sidings. Mr. Scott was not to be found. Finally I could not resist
   the temptation to plunge in, take the responsibility, give train orders,
   and set matters going. Death or Westminster Abbey, flashed across my mind.
   I knew it was dismissal, disgrace, perhaps criminal punishment for me if I
   erred. On the other hand, I could bring in the wearied freight-train men
   who had lain out all night. I could set everything in motion, I knew I
   could. I had often done it in wiring Mr. Scott"s orders. I knew just what
   to do, and so I began. I gave orders in his name, started every train, sat
   at the instrument watching ever tick, carried the trains along from station
   to station, took extra precautions, and had everything running smoothly
   when Mr. Scott at last reached the office.[4]

Carnegie's initiative earned him a promotion, and another, until by age twenty-four he succeeded Tom Scott as superintendent of the Western Division, which at the time was the largest division of the nations's largest railroad. Under Carnegie's supervision, divisional traffic quadrupled, track mileage doubled, and it had the lowest ton-mile costs of any railroad in America. On the Pennsylvania Carnegie would gain valuable experience and lessons in management as well as his first taste of the rewards of wise investments.

The system of management practiced on the Pennsylvania Railroad by Tom Scott, now a vice president, and John Edgar Thomson, the president, was the product of another Scotch immigrant, Daniel Craig McCallum. McCallum had the good fortune to be an innovator in railroad management, and also the misfortune of getting fired for succeeding. He was born in Scotland but in 1822 came to the United States, where he received - some elementary schooling. McCallum left school to become an accomplished carpenter and architect before joining the New York and Erie Railroad Company in 1848. …

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