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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 24: Industry Comes of Age, 1865 - 1900


Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931)

Edison was the inventive genius of American industrialization who symbolized the modern fusion of science, technology, and industry.

Edison was regarded as a very slow student, and consequently his formal education lasted only three months. Still a boy, he turned to selling newspapers on the streets of Port Huron, Michigan, handing over some of the money to his family but spending the rest on books and chemicals. At age fifteen he went to work for the telegraph. His first inventions were electrical stock tickers and vote recorders.

He took out over a thousand patents in his life. Among his lesser-known inventions were synthetic chemicals, waxed paper, portland cement, the mimeograph machine, and light sockets and fixtures.

Although celebrated as a solitary genius, Edison actually developed the new forms of team research and systematic technological innovation. His laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, was set up in 1880 and employed teams of researchers financed by industry.

Quote: The first step is an intuitionand comes with a burst, then difficulties arise.Bugs, as such little faults and difficulties are calledshow themselves, and months of anxious watching, study, and labor are requisite.I have the right principle and am on the right track, but time, hard work, and some good luck are necessary, too. (Letter, 1878)

REFERENCE: Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (1998).


Andrew Carnegie (1835 - 1919)

Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who became the leading industrialist of the American steel industry and a prominent philanthropist.

His parents, Scottish hand-loom weavers, were well informed and very interested in education. The family came to the United States when Carnegies father was thrown out of work by the new textile mills. Carnegies boyhood dream was to dress his mother in silks, and she lived long enough for him to shower her with expensive gifts.

Carnegie decided early in his career that he should eventually give away most of his money. He spent much of his time associating with literary people and writing magazine articles and books. Eventually, he gave away an estimated $350 million, including $60 million to American libraries.

Charming, smooth, and polished, Carnegie was generally popular with the public.

Quote: Thirty-three, and an income of $50,000 per annum.Beyond this never earnmake no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. (Memo to himself, 1868)

REFERENCE: Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie (1970).


John D. Rockefeller (1839 - 1937)

Rockefeller was the industrialist who organized the Standard Oil Company and became the leading symbol of American capitalism.

His mother was harsh, austere, and religious, and Rockefeller inherited these qualities from her. He was generally frugal and humorless. As a young man, he taught Sunday school and always remained a committed member of the Baptist church.

Rockefeller avoided serving in the Civil War to devote himself to business. He began his career by working with a Cleveland merchant and bought his first refinery for $72,000.

He retired from active control of Standard Oil in 1897. By the 1920s his net worth was probably a billion dollars.

Quote: In speaking of the real beginnings of the Standard Oil Company, it should be remembered that it was not so much the consolidation of the firms in which we had a personal interest, but the coming together of the men who had the combined brainpower to do the work.It is not merely capital and plans and the strictly material things that make up a business, but the character of the men behind these things. (1909)

REFERENCE: Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1998).


Samuel Gompers (1850 - 1924)

Gompers was the American labor leader who organized the American Federation of Labor and promoted the strategy of conservative craft organization.

Almost entirely self-educated, Gompers gained much of his knowledge by reading and attending lectures in New York City. He was very well acquainted with European socialist thinkers and even learned German so he could read Karl Marx in the original. But he always believed the Marxists and socialists were wrong and worked to develop arguments against them.

Gompers loved drama and pageantry but kept the secret brotherhood approach out of the AF of L unions. He disliked reformers and intellectuals, calling them industrially impossible. Although strongly patriotic, after World War I Gompers and the AF of L were often accused of being un-American for promoting labor organization and strikes.

Quote: The trusts are our employers, and the employer who is fair to us, whether an individual or a collection of individuals in the form of a corporation or a trust, matters little to us as long as we obtain fair wages. (1912)

REFERENCES: Harold Livesay, Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America (1987); David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor (1987).



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