An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 9

This is the nineth in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #9: Carnegie is Hired by Thomas Scott

Young Andrew Carnegie continued to distinguish himself among the other telegram boys with his work habbits and his ever-increasing skills. The office manager gave him a raise and put him in charge of distributing the messages between the other boys. More promotions and raises would follow.

Books from Colonel Anderson’s library were not the only educational resource the youngster used to improve his mind. Around the same time he gained access to the library he and five friends formed a study group much like Benjamin Franklin’s Junto. The boys would study some issue of the day, then get to gether to debate the issue in an orderly manor.

At work, Andrew started experimenting with the telegraph equipment before the office opened for business each morning. Soon he was able to exchange messages with similarly ambitious message boys in other offices around the state. One morning when he was doing this an emergency message started to come through. Andrew tapped out a response, warning the operator at the other end that the Pittsburgh office was not opened, but offering to take down the message if it was sent slowly. Impressed, his boss started letting him relieve the regular telegraph operators for short periods.

He made it a matter of pride to be faster and more accurate than other operators, even before he was hired as an operator on a full time basis. He taught himself to transcribe incoming messages in real time by listening to the clattering of the telegram key, without recourse to the paper tape that ran through the machine.

When the operator in a small town outside Pittsburgh needed to take two weeks off, Sixteen year old Andrew was sent to take his place for the interim. The only mishap he suffered was an electrical shock that knocked him off his chair when lightening struck the line during a storm. “After that,” said Carnegie, “I was noted in the office for caution during lightening storms.”

At seventeen Andrew was promoted to telegraph operator on a full time basis. He now regarded himself as “performing a man’s part, not a boy’s; earning a dollar every working day.” Because of Andrew’s earning power his younger brother Tom was able to stay in school until he had completed two years of high school.

 Around a thousand years BC King Solomon wrote “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings, he will not stand before obscure men.” (Proverbs 22:29) Many centuries later Benjamin Franklin, John D. Rockefeller, and Thomas Mellon would all credit this proverb with inspiring them to overcome their modest circumstances and achieve great things. There is no record of Carnegie ever publicly quoting the verse as the others did, but he may well have heard it at some point in the church his father always made him attend. Whether he ever heard the verse or not, he  proved the truth of it just as well as the other three.

He continued to work on improving his speed and accuracy with the telegraph key. Soon customers were asking for him by name when they had important messages to send. When a flood wiped out the telegraph lines between two nearby cities, the company dispatched Andrew to the one working office to handle all the traffic for the area, confident that he could send and receive more messages in a day than any other operator they had.

One of the customers on whom Andrew made a positive impression was a railroad superintendent named Thomas Scott, a self-made man like Andrew whose father had died, leaving the family in poverty, when he was ten years old. Now twenty-nine, Scott was in charge of the western region of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1853 Scott was able to persuade his superiors to open a private telegraph office for the railroad’s exclusive use.

There was only one telegraph operator in the city Scott wanted for his office. He offered seventeen year old Andrew Carnegie the job, and won a brief bidding war with his old employer by offering thirty-five dollars per month.

The Pennsylvania offered terrific growth opportunities to an ambitious teenager in 1853. Transportation and communications have always been the two golden geese of American business, and running a telegraph office for a railroad put Carnegie at the intersection of the two. The company was still very small, running only between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with but a single pair of rails running much of that distance; but it was about to start growing at a tremendous rate.

By the end of the Civil War J. Edgar Thompson’s Pennsylvania Railroad and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central would be the two dominant railroad companies in a nation where railroading was the dominant industry. (In the mid-to-late nineteenth century almost the whole value of shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange was in railroad company stocks.) During that time of rapid growth, from 1853 to 1865, Andrew Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania, reporting directly to Thomas Scott.

At first there weren’t enough wires to send to keep an operator busy full time, so Carnegie worked as Scott’s clerk and secretary when he wasn’t at the telegraph key. Carnegie was eager to do any kind of work that came to hand, to show his capabilities to his new boss. He explained his philosophy years later, in his autobiography: “(T)he great aim of every boy should be to do something beyond the sphere of his duties – something which attracts the attention of those over him.”

Carnegie’s compensation grew with his responsibilities. While he was still in his teens he bought the house his family had been renting. He was nineteen when his father died, and by that time Andrew had already been the family’s primary breadwinner for years.

Shortly after his father’s death Carnegie became a stockholder for the first time. Thomas Scott told him of some shares in a company called Adams Express, that had become available because the woman who owned them had a sudden need for cash. Scott, who already owned some Adams Express stock, encouraged Carnegie to buy the shares, and even offered to lend his protege the money for the purchase.

Soon Scott was entrusting Carnegie with management duties. In 1856 Scott left Pittsburgh for two weeks and, with permission from higher management, left Carnegie to run the entire district in his absence. The twenty year old kept things running smoothly, and his bosses continued to increase his responsibilities.

Right around the same time, Carnegie received a ten dollar dividend check from the management 0f Adams Express. The check made a lasting impression. “It game me the first penny of revenue from capital – something I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. ‘Eureka!’ I cried.” Carnegie would continue to be a careful and wise investor for the rest of his life. He was a silent partner in Adams Express, but throughout his career his most lucrative investments would be in companies where he played an active role in management.

 Late in 1856 Thomas Scott was promoted to General Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, reporting directly to company president J. Edgar Thompson. The new job required him to move to Altoona, and of course he brought his right hand man with him.  Carnegie’s salary was now $50 per month, and he was able to bring his mother and brother to Altoona to live with him. They kept the house in Pittsburgh and used it as a rental property. At twenty-one years of age, and with only four and a half years of formal schooling, Carnegie was only two steps below the president of a company that would be one of the dominant forces in American business within a few years. He hadn’t stood before any kings yet, but he would in time.

Next week’s post will cover Carnegie’s career in management with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

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