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If there's anyone in real life who matched the rags-to-riches story of the fictional (and unfortunately named) Ragged Dick, it's Andrew Carnegie.
Born in Scotland to a down-on-his-luck loomer father and an enterprising mother, Carnegie entered the United States on the bottom-most rung of the social ladder. But by the end of his life, he was one of the wealthiest men in the country.
Wondering how he pulled that off? Let's dig in.
Without any college training and just his own wit, he was able to implement techniques that sent his competitors scrambling to copy his methodology, laid low by a Scottish immigrant.
He started working in America as a telegraph messenger boy in Pittsburgh, where he quickly picked up Morse Code, translating messages by ear instead of needing to transcribe messages by hand. His employer made his personal library available to the working boys, and Carnegie made that library a frequent haunt.
From there he signed on with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, began investing, and started to build his empire. The Civil War provided businesses across the Union with a massive boom, and Carnegie rode it from the railroad business to the bridge business to, finally, the industry he'd make his own—steel.
His tricked-out new factories cut down the need for skilled labor, which naturally made his skilled laborers feel a bit uneasy. Facing obsolescence, they banded together under the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers to protect their wages and to avoid being replaced by better machinery.
Yeah, that last bit kind of hits close to home, doesn't it? At the Homestead Steel mill the AA organized a strike, which ground production to a halt.
Carnegie was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was an outspoken supporter of unions, but now that a union was striking against him he really didn't want to cave in to their demands, either. So, faced with two hard calls, with money on the one hand and honor on the other and the world waiting on his decision…
He decided to take a nice vacation in Scotland and leave the whole business to Henry Clay Frick in 1881.
As expected, going on vacation does not, indeed, make your problems go away, and putting the matter in Frick's hands worked about as well as avoiding murdering your roommate by taking in a hungry lion as a new tenant. Frick refused to budge, and when the strikers set up an encampment he had the place assaulted by a Pinkerton detective squad. The conflict escalated, plenty of workers were outright killed, and eventually the National Guard was sent in to put the conflict down.
Carnegie expected to sneak in and let Frick take the fall, but instead the county's eyes were on him for his inaction. At least Frick did something about the strike—Carnegie just bounced out of the entire country. Carnegie secretly compensated the families of the workers who died in the strike, but he didn't improve pay or conditions for the workers, either.
Once he acquired his mountain of cash, he was faced with the question of what in the world he was supposed to do with it all. He believed that the newly-emerging super-wealthy shouldn't pile up their money in Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools, but make sure that every dime of it was spent on the public good before their deaths. It was advice he mostly lived by, donating a vast chunk of his fortune by his death in 1919.
He was by no means a perfect man; he was as cutthroat as his competition and under his negligence one of the most gruesome strikes in American history, the Homestead Strike, occurred. However, unlike his peers he put some hard and serious effort into not being a mustache-twirling villain and to giving his fortune back.
After cashing his chips and leaving the steel business, Carnegie spent the rest of his life as a philanthropist, spending his fortune on schools, libraries, concert halls, and other such buildings. In his book The Gospel of Wealth, he explained that, while the government should keep their mitts off of corporate funds, corporations had the responsibility to use that same business sense that made them their piles of money to spend said money for the good of society.
While this sounds great and noble on a service level, one sadly can't eat books or concert tickets, and it's a big ask to tell an employee who works a 12-hour shift to spend their non-existent free time at the public library. It worked for him, and he just didn't understand that it didn't work for everyone…especially people for whom English was a second language.
All in all, while he tried to put the ladder down for other people to climb, he inconveniently left it with a few rungs missing.