The History Channel aired the third installment of its The Men Who Built America series Tuesday, and, like the first two, this episode was less than accurate. In my review of the first episode I describe the many creative liberties the producers took in their efforts to jazz up the stories for a television audience. The second part of this four part series was even more inaccurate, just “fiction in a period setting.”
The third part is not as completely un-historical as the second, but there are several places where accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of drama.
What’s more, the third episode even contradicts the second. The History Channel aired a rerun of the second part immediately before the third part on Tuesday night. In the closing minutes of the second episode the narrator tells us that Andrew Carnegie prolonged his annual summer hiatus in Scotland after the Homestead Strike turned violent, because he didn’t want to face the political backlash in the US. After the opening credits of the third episode the same narrator comes back on and tells us that Carnegie cut short his stay in Scotland and came home ahead of schedule to deal with the backlash!
Next the narrator claims that JP Morgan was an expert at turning around “broken companies,” and that Carnegie Steel was such a company. This is a complete fabrication. Carnegie steel was as profitable as ever after breaking up the Homestead Strike, and when the nation plunged into depression the following year, Carnegie and his company were so financially strong that they were able to buy up the assets of failing competitors. The company generated such strong revenues, year in and year out, that it could fund its own expansion without resorting to bank loans.
At any rate Morgan had no way of taking over Carnegie Steel. Nine years later he did put together a group of investors who lured Carnegie into retirement by offering him a mountain of money for his company, which they then merged with other steel companies; but the History Channel portrayal of Carnegie Steel as a “failing company” that needed to be saved by turnaround artist JP Morgan is pure fiction.
Speaking of bankers, JP Morgan, the main protagonist of this episode, is completely mis-charaterized. The TV version of Morgan is a rich investor who likes to buy and run businesses, whose management skills allow him to take over failing companies and make them profitable. He is, we are told, someone who “builds industries from the ground up.” The truth is very different.
JP Morgan was an investment banker. What he did, and did very well, was help his clients find promising places to invest their money. He didn’t spend his own money to gain sole control of Thomas Edison’s business as shown in the program. He spotted Edison as a good place to invest money and quickly described the opportunity to the wealthy men who trusted him to find such investments. It’s true that he put some of his own funds into the Edison project, but it is far from true to say that he bought the company to run it as his own little fiefdom.
The show is just about as inaccurate when it shows the Edison Electric deal putting JP Morgan at loggerheads with his father Junius Morgan. In the TV version of the story, JP was unable to fully invest in Edison until his Junius died in April of 1890, leaving JP in control of the company. There is only a small grain of truth in this. It’s true that the elder Morgan had early misgivings about the Edison project, but by 1882 his son had convinced him that the project was worthy of their clients’ money. Until Junius’ death eight years later both Morgans, and their clients, invested heavily in the electrical industry.
Like the first two episodes, Part Three is full of inaccuracies in all sorts of minor plot details. We are told, for example, that in 1882 Morgan’s house became the first private residence in the world with electric light. In reality Edison’s house was the first, three years before that. The story of Edison’s first demonstration, at his house, is fascinating, funny, and historically important, but the producers of the series saw fit to leave this story out.
This episode also weaves a yarn about John D Rockefeller becoming obsessed with combating the electric light, fearing that it threatened his lamp oil business. The narrator even claims that Rockefeller financed a massive advertising campaign to make people afraid of electricity. This is totally bogus.
I rate Ron Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller as the best-written biography I’ve ever read (and I’ve read tons of ’em), and Chernow’s references to the electric light as a threat to Standard Oil’s lamp oil business make no mention at all of Rockefeller trying to resist the movement. In actual fact Standard’s business continued to grow year by year as the company positioned itself to supply every new petroleum market that emerged: lamp oil, lubricants, paint and varnish, and eventually gasoline and other engine fuels.
Perhaps this fabrication about Rockefeller panicking in the face of the electric light was put in place to set up the drama of the forth episode, where they will probably tell us that Henry Ford’s automobiles came along just in time to save Standard Oil from bankruptcy. If they say that, it will be another fabrication.
Another reason for the bogus claims of a Rockefeller attack on the electrical industry may be to build up this fictitious rivalry between Rockefeller and Morgan. In actual fact the two men were more than capable of cooperating when it suited them.
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The coverage History gives to Morgan’s 1895 rescue of the US government makes it sound like Morgan personally came up with the money to bail out the feds. The truth, again, is that Morgan was an investment banker. The deal he brokered to lend the government enough money to meet its immediate needs was funded by several wealthy clients, one of the largest of them being Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. This is addressed in detail in Jean Strouse’s biography of Morgan, among others.
The saddest thing about this series is not all the fiction masquerading as history, it’s the all the great true stories that have been left out. The producers have resorted to inventing all these bogus stories to make for a “better” drama, when the real story of this era is far more dramatic and interesting than all of this History Channel fiction.
In 1885, to cite just one of a million great stories History didn’t mention, Morgan brokered a deal between William Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad and Carnegie’s erstwhile employer, the Pennsylvania, to deny both Carnegie and Rockefeller access to rail traffic at non-monopoly prices. The meeting took place on Morgan’s aptly-named yacht, the Corsair. The story of that meeting and its aftermath, told accurately, would be more than enough to fill a fascinating and amusing two hour television program.
During the second hour of Episode Three the creative liberties continue. Nicola Tesla is portrayed as having invented his polyphase motor and transformer in Edison’s Menlo Park lab, while working as Edison’s “apprentice.” In actual fact Tesla worked in the Menlo Park lab briefly, but he was never Edison’s apprentice, and he was long gone before he came up with those world-changing inventions.
The more I watch this series the more I wish someone would tell the stories accurately. It could be great television.