The Steel Business
Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in steel, turning the industrial world on its ear in the process. He was possessed by technology and efficiency in a way no businessman before him had ever been. His relentless efforts to drive down costs and undersell the competition made his steel mills the most modern in the world, the models for the entire industry. By 1900, Carnegie's mills pro
Carnegie's steel was cheap. Suddenly bridges and skyscrapers were not only feasible but affordable, too. Steel fed national growth, accelerating the already booming industrial sector. Steel meant more jobs, national prestige, and a higher quality of life for many. For Carnegie's workers, however, cheap steel meant lower wages, less job security, and the end of creative labor. Carnegie's drive for efficiency cost steel workers their unions and control over their own labor.
To the casual observer a Carnegie mill was chaos. "Wild shouts resounded amid the rumbling of an overhead train," McClure's Magazine reported of the Homestead mill in 1894. "On every side tumultuous action seemed to make every inch of ground dangerous. Savage little engines went rattling about among the piles of great beams. Dimly on my left were huge engines, moving with thunderous pounding."
Indeed, flames, noise, and danger ruled the Carnegie mills. "Protective gear" consisted only of two layers of wool long-johns; horrible injuries were common. Wives and children came to dread the sound of factory whistles that meant an accident had occurred.
"They wipe a man out here every little while," a worker said in 1893. "Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes.... Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen.... Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right! But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story."
For Carnegie, efficiency, not safety, was paramount. His vast steel mills at Braddock, Duquesne, and Homestead boasted the latest equipment. As technology improved, Carnegie ordered existing equipment to be torn out and replaced. He quickly made back these investments through reduced labor costs, and his mills remained always the most productive in the world.
Next: The Lot of a Steel Worker