In the Gilded Age (1870-1900), a time of booming industrial output and national expansion, Andrew Carnegie emerged as one of the most famous and influential business titans. Known popularly as “the Steel King,” he was as well-known as men like John D. Rockefeller (oil), William K. Vanderbilt (railroads), George Pullman (railroad cars), and J. P. Morgan (finance). But unlike them, Carnegie enjoyed a positive public image, much of it due to his own calculated efforts to present himself as a true “rags-to-riches” story (arriving as a penniless immigrant), as well as a benevolent capitalist who treated his workers well and gave enormous sums of money to philanthropic endeavors. This talk will examine the rise of Carnegie, his steel empire, and his public persona–separating fact from myth. It will also situate Carnegie as a key figure in one of the most tumultuous and significant periods in US history. Finally, we’ll consider how Carnegie compares to modern day titans, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Edward O’Donnell is a professor of history at College of the Holy Cross. He is the author of several books, including Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age. He frequently contributes op-eds to publications like Newsweek and The Huffington Post, and has been featured on PBS, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and C-SPAN. O’Donnell also has curated several major museum exhibits on American history and appeared in several historical documentaries. He currently hosts a history podcast, “In the Past Lane.”