Carnegie and Edison

Carnegie and Edison are fascinating to know and to compare.

It is well worth the time, and also quite interesting, to look at the lives of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) and Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), two Americans who left giant bequests to the world and their country. What they did is still very much with us, as Carnegie-Mellon University, or the electric light and motion pictures. Both men were many-sided, and much greater than their abbreviated images in modern legend would suggest. Here are some sketches of their lives, which may excite your interest.

Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie should be pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. He was also commonly called "Andy." He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835, and came to the United States in 1848, settling with his parents and siblings in Allegheny City, across the river from Pittsburgh, which he reached by the Erie Canal, the Ohio State Canal and the Allegheny River. He was a telegraph messenger boy, a telegraph operator, secretary to Thomas A. Scott, then Superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, later Superintendent himself, at age 24. This was remarkable, but possible, at the time. He resigned from the Pennsylvania in 1865 to devote full time to the iron industry. The Keystone Bridge Company was founded in 1863, the Superior Rail Mill and Blast Furnaces, as well as the Cyclops Mills in 1864, the Pittsburgh Locomotive Works in 1866 and the Union Iron Mills in 1867. All these concerns were owned and managed by the Carnegie brothers and their partners.

Carnegie's earliest enterprise were the sleeping cars of T. T. Woodruff. He started the Central Transportation Company to run them on the Pennsylvania in 1856. This interest was absorbed by Pullman around 1869.

The Lucy Furnaces were started in 1870 to supply pig iron for his puddling furnaces. He received help on the design of the large blast furnaces from Whitwell of England, and hired Dr Fricke, a German chemist, the first chemist in the American iron industry. He found a way to make coke from the coal dross that had been discarded in giant heaps, and used mill scale in the blast furnace. Mill scale had been regarded as deleterious. Also, the chemist showed that some cheap ores were actually superior. Previous ironmasters had smelted them with too much flux, and rejected them although they were much richer. Carnegie always encouraged, and profited greatly from, British and European contacts. He was, in fact a president of the British Iron and Steel Institute.

What Carnegie brought to Pittsburgh was quality in products, integrity in dealing, and detailed accounting. All of these had been sadly lacking, and their introduction explains Carnegie's success in large measure. Another factor was his promptness in identifying and following up promising trends. He began building iron bridges when they were rare, and quickly entered the new steel industry when it arrived in the early 1870's. He had rolled several hundred tons of patent hardened-head rails, but soon saw that all-steel Bessemer rails were to be much superior. He founded the Edgar Thomson Works at Braddock, Pa., rolling his first rails in 1874. Only the Pennsylvania Steel Company at Harrisburg and the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown were earlier in the field. He was the second producer of spiegeleisen in the United States, the first producer of ferromanganese (these are alloys used in making steel). He acquired the Frick Coke Company of Connellsville, and developed a phosphorus-free (Bessemer) ore in Center County. Carnegie, McCandless and Company became the Edgar Thomson Steel Company, then Carnegie Steel, and finally U. S. Steel in 1901.

The Homestead Works were purchased by Carnegie, Phipps and Co. in 1886 and converted to a steel mill. This name is remembered in connection with the Homestead Strike of 1892, which broke out when Carnegie was abroad. His partners advised him to remain in Scotland, since they suspected his sympathy with the workers, and wanted to handle things their own way. Unfortunately, the sheriff was called in to protect the works, and some officers were shot by the strikers. The Pinkertons arrived, and while being arrested by the local authorities, some of the officers shot some of them. Then the governor came in with the militia, and a fatal riot broke out.

Carnegie came from radical stock in Scotland, and was contemptuous of inherited rank. He was sympathetic with the workers, and treated them fairly and well. He said that "No labor is cheaper than the dearest in the mechanical field," and was flatly against discharging or replacing striking workers who had not taken any criminal action. However, he was an employer, and had no respect for unions, since they seemed to take away his managerial prerogatives. He was also a supporter of moderate tariffs and free trade, so he differed considerably from most American capitalists of the time. His companies were partnerships, not corporations, which he thought impeded timely action (which is true). He never owned stock, saying "Stock gambling and honorable business are incompatible," another true statement.

After acquiring great wealth, Carnegie then began to give it away after 1900, first benefiting Dunfermline and Pittsburgh, but then the world. His libraries were among the first, and became the best known, of his bequests. His father had taken a part in creating the first public library in Dunfermline, and he was very grateful for Col. Anderson's lending library in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Institution was founded in 1902, the Hero Fund in 1904, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (a pension plan for professors) in 1905. The Mount Wilson observatory was also one of his gifts. He gave grants for organs to churches, contributing 50% of the cost (originally all the cost, but this was abused). By 1919, he had supported 7689 church organs. The Hero Fund was to support the dependents of those who had lost their lives helping others, and this spread to many different countries. He financed the Temple of Peace at The Hague in the Netherlands, since he was a strong pacifist. Since his name is seen so often on his bequests, mean individuals have accused him of giving only to put his name on view. However, very many of his grants were anonymous or to be named after others, but were named in his honor against his recommendations.

Carnegie had only a small amount of regular schooling, but nevertheless became a cultured and educated man. He is another shining example of the value of self-education. He said of a library that it did not give learning, but the reader had to take it. Here is the real advantage of self-education, which is really the only education there is. Carnegie seems to have been very kind and personable, if he does say so himself.

Thomas Alva Edison

Edison came from Dutch stock, and his family pronounced the name Eedison, rather than the now-universal Eddison. His nickname was not "Tom" but "Al." The family had left the United States during the War for Independence for Canada, but his father had been active in Canadian political turmoil agitating for independence there, and sought shelter in Milan, Ohio shortly before Edison's birth in 1847. Edison grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, and was not poor, though certainly not rich. His mother taught him at home, preferring this to the bad public schools of the time. His business affairs on the Grand Trunk Railroad were extraordinary. He was far from a common newsboy; in fact, he hired newsboys and published a paper. He learned a great deal from the Detroit Public Library, and was an avid reader.

He became a telegrapher at this time, and always considered it his "trade." He was a good, fast operator, but his constant experimenting was something of a negative factor with his employers. He first worked on the railroad, on the Grand Trunk and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, but his personal habits were not regular enough for these jobs, so he went to work for commercial telegraphs in Cincinnati and Lousville around the time of the Civil War. After the war, in about 1868, he hired on with Western Union in Boston, and there saw outlets for his inventive talents. He worked on and improved the stock ticker, and became prosperous enough to open his own laboratory in Menlo Park in 1876. For an account of his career after this, refer to a biography, since it is a long and complex story.

Edison's Principal Inventions
Stock Ticker
Quadruplex Telegraphy
Telephone Transmitter
Incandescent Light System
Automatic Telegraphy
Induction Telegraphy
Electric Railways
Magnetic Ore Concentration
Portland Cement
Alkaline Storage Battery
Motion Pictures

A list of the fields of Edison's activity is shown at the right, in rough chronological order. His work in the different fields often overlapped in time, and there were periods of inactivity in each field. In most cases he was not the first or only worker in the field, but often the most effective. Edison was, above all, an engineer who could plan and bring together a complete and valuable system, not simply an isolated invention. When he came to Boston, the stock ticker was already in use, but he improved it greatly, so that he became associated with it. His first invention was a vote recorder, intended for the Congress, but there was no demand whatsoever for it, so he determined only to invent things for which there was a demand, and stuck by this principle. Incidentally, most patented inventions are either impractical or lack demand. Edison, known as an inventor, was very unlike most inventors.

Duplex telegraphy was known, but Edison stepped in and thorougly revisited the whole field, devising the quadruplex circuit that kept four operators busy at the ends of a single wire, two sending and two receiving. Edison was not the first with a telephone transmitter more effective than Bell's receiving instrument used backwards, and not even first with a carbon microphone. However, he thoroughly investigated the problem, and came up with the carbon button transmitter used in connection with an induction coil that made telephony over reasonable distances possible. There were many competitors, as was normal, since Edison worked in crowded, popular fields of invention. His thoroughness, however, gave him an edge.

The phonograph was, unusually, an invention out of the blue, though probably suggested by all the work on reproducing the human voice by telephony at the time. The tinfoil phonograph of 1877 was only a curiosity, but one that captured the imagination. By the time a better, practical instrument was worked out by Edison, in 1889, the field was again filled with competitors.

The electric light is, of course, Edison's most famous invention. Again, there were many inventors with electric lights other than the arc light, and experiments had been carried out since the 1850's. Even as Edison worked, others also were trying carbon filaments and other materials. One problem was the durability of the lamps, the other the distribution of the power to light them. Edison used the new Sprengel mercury diffusion pump to exhaust the bulbs, and found out how to seal the leads through the glass. His world-wide search for filament materials is famous. First, Japanese bamboo, then the "squirted" filament were used. He decided the filaments had to have a high resistance in spite of the small radiating area, noting that the resistance would rise more quickly than the radiating area would decrease. This made parallel operation practical, since the currents were greatly reduced. He found that current dynamos were too inefficient, but there was an easy fix in decreasing the armature resistance. All of these things, necessary for success, contradicted current opinions, but were proved right. He designed a complete system, from dynamos to bulbs, and manufactured it.

Edison was not a mathematician, but he said he could always hire electricians. In fact, he did, in the person of F. R. Upton, a physicist educated at Princeton, who was very helpful. However, the lack of mathematics meant that the whole world of theoretical physics, including Maxwell's electromagnetism, was beyond his ken. Therefore, the Edison Effect (thermionic currents), and the propagation of waves on transmission lines, for example, could not be followed up, as they were by Hertz and Pupin. Edison struggled with fast automatic telegraphy, and induction telegraphy between a train and line wire, but never really had any great success, since these problems would not yield to his methods.

Edison followed Werner Siemens into electric railways a year later than Siemens' first demonstration in 1879, by likewise turning his Z dynamo into a motor to pull a demonstration train on a circular track. He made some later experiments with a more ambitious locomotive and track, but never made much of a mark in the field, which developed rapidly in the late 1880's. Nothing about Edison's experimental railways was ever used in practice.

Edison's abilities as an engineer are well demonstrated in the Magnetic Ore Concentrator and Portland Cement, two industries not generally associated with his name. He found a large but lean deposit of magnetite in the Orange Mountains of New Jersey, and decided to produce rich concentrates for the eastern steel industry, which was being depressed by lack of an economical source of ore. Just as he succeeded in this large project, rich hematite ore was discovered in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota, which made his eastern magnetite ore uneconomical.

Undaunted, he applied the rock crushing technology developed for iron ore to crushing rock for Portland cement. More than that, he developed a new long kiln of greater capacity, and better machinery for crushing and screening the clinker. With typical thoroughness, he designed a pressure lubrication system for all the machinery in the plant that gave longer life and required less labor. Then, to give a market for his product, he devised a cast concrete detached house. This was not an easy or obvious task, since the concrete had to flow properly to all parts of the mold without separation. The house required about a week to construct, and sold for about $1200. These houses never became popular (though cheap, they were still too expensive for the poor), but now buildings are made this way everywhere.

The alkaline storage battery, using plates of nickel and iron oxides, was an effort to overcome the drawbacks of the lead-acid battery, which were a low power to weight ratio, short life of the active elements because of sedimentation and sulphating, and lack of mechanical durability. The Edison battery overcame the problems of mechanical strength and life quite well, but the improvement in power to weight ratio was not enough to spark a revolution. Electric vehicles and streetcars were tried, but the gasoline engine defeated them. Edison himself had said that a ton of coal was the best way to store electricity. Ironically, the lead-acid battery made the self-starter possible, which greatly aided the petrol engine to take over. The problem of storing electricity for use of vehicles is still not solved.

Motion pictures were developed almost exclusively by Edison. Though the idea of using persistence of vision to give the illusion of motion was well-known, nobody had any idea how to realize it in practice. By 1889, Kodak had developed a reasonably fast, fine grain emulsion on film that could be used. In the same year, Edison made a camera that moved the film intermittently into position for exposure using sprocket wheels and matching holes in the film. In 1895, the projection Kinetoscope allowed projection before an audience instead of viewing through a peephole. By 1910 there were more than 8000 cinemas in the United States.

The first motion picture studios were in Orange, New Jersey. The Black Maria was a studio that could revolve to face the sun, since natural light was used for filming. The actors worked in front of a matt black background, for maximum contrast. For once, the patent system worked to Edison's advantage, and all motion picture work was done under license. Later, Edison introduced talking pictures, but not by the process that later became universal.

Edison had many dealings with the patent system. He took out thousands of patents, and was in constant litigation in the later years. In general, the patent system was of little aid to him, because he usually worked in fields where others were patenting at the same rate. Even omitting rascality and swindling, there was enough patent interference to create a legal quagmire, especially over the electric light, the carbon transmitter and the phonograph. Edison often rightly claimed protection, but the courts were bad arbitrators, understanding little of the matters under discussion. It is interesting to compare the Edison patents, which had some basis in invention, with the earlier Morse patents which did not, largely appropriating the ideas of others, and relying on general ignorance. In Edison's case, "state of the art" was interpreted strictly; in Morse's case it was simply ignored.

Edison had even less formal education than Carnegie, but was just as devoted to self-education. He was a voracious reader, but only of things where he could learn something. Unfortunately, he was not led to mathematics, and this was a sad omission. We can argue whether Edison was really "educated" rather than "informed," but there was something extremely valuable in his makeup. His ability to sleep in catnaps and to work all night is annoying to me, but he got along well with his associates and made lasting friendships. Like Carnegie, he was scrupulously honest and upright.

Comparisons and Observations

Like many, if not most, men of accomplishment, Edison and Carnegie owed little or nothing to their elementary education. It was gained anyway by informal means. Neither had a college education, for here also there was little to gain, as colleges did not teach any of the things to which they devoted themselves. Edison suffered somewhat, but few colleges of the time in the United States could have taught him the mathematics, physics and chemistry that he needed. Both were avid and life-long learners, and this is how they gained the information and wisdom that they needed. It is the effort to educate oneself that does the job. Perhaps formal education would have stifled them.

Neither made the environment in which they propered. Both took advantage of what presented itself, and both the times and the economic conditions were essential to their success. Carnegie flourished in an age in which the iron and steel industry were undergoing revolutionary change. He became a divisional superintendent of the most important railroad in the United States at 24. His vision, inquisitiveness and enterprise would have been wasted had he lived at another time and place. Edison was fascinated by chemistry and electrical tinkering at the one time when progress could be made by ingenuity and persistence. Earlier, there was no telegraph to interest the youth; later, much more scientific knowledge was required.

Both men were, famously, telegraph operators in their youth, and the telegraph led them in their different paths. Many more famous men of the period were also telegraph operators, until it might seem that most young men of the time became operators. Actually, this is probably far from the truth. It seems rather that the telegraph selected bright and enterprising youth, and the considerable effort required to become an operator separated the wheat from the chaff. At a later day, amateur radio seems to have had a similar, but not as pronounced, an effect. Such interests have pretty much vanished at present, notably from the schools, which are suspicious of individualism.

Edison's entertainment seems to have been confined to practical jokes and Parcheesi, but he was deeply entertained by his work, which was never a burden. His lack of culture is to be deplored, but he did not insist on it. He turned down an honorary degree from Oxford or Cambridge by not showing up, which was a severe blow to his lasting reputation. Carnegie, on the other hand, was a well-rounded man with an appreciation of scenery, art and music. He got much more out of travel than Edison did, and contributed as much to society by his philanthropy as Edison did by his inventions. Both were happily married, and enjoyed themselves in different ways.


There is a large number of books about both Carnegie and Edison, of which the quality is quite varied. The two below are early ones, and include as much first-hand information as possible. Since one is an autobiography, and the other is "authorized," they are both sympathetic to their subjects. There are other points of view, but be very wary of believing reports that are not carefully supported by evidence, and allow for differences in society. Neither of these men is in the least reprehensible, especially when compared with their contemporaries.

  1. A. Carnegie, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1920)
  2. F. L. Dyer and T. C. Martin, Edison, His Life and Inventions (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1910). An "authorized" biography. Edison did not write much, but the authors try to include as much personal information as possible. The inventions are explained in Appendices that give technical details.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 31 March 2001
Last revised