Andrew Carnegie – making philanthropy fashionable

Andrew Carnegie died exactly a century ago, on August 11th, 1919. His was a "local boy makes good" story, in that he went from a one-room house in Dunfermline to become one of the richest men in history, and one of the most generous. His father was a casualty of the new textile technology as machines replaced the skilled handloom weavers. The machines gave the world cheap fabrics, but they drove the weavers into destitution. Carnegie's father moved with his family to seek a better life in the United States.

His first job, at age 13 in 1848, was as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill. It paid $1.20 a week for 12 hours a day for 6 days. In modern values that would be about $35 a week. His second paid more, $2 a week, but it was harder and involved firing up a boiler in the factory basement and running a small steam engine to power the machines.

Still a teenager, he became a railroad telegrapher with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, in his spare time avidly devouring the library that one of the bosses gave the young employees free access to. He resolved then to offer poor boys the same opportunities if he ever became wealthy himself. He did indeed, by acquiring a series of shares in growing companies. Still in his 20s he had acquired investments in railroads, Pullman sleeping carriages, bridges and oil derricks. America was growing into its industrial revolution, and Carnegie was building up wealth in its new technologies.

He later built up the Carnegie Steel Company of Pittsburgh, eventually selling it to J P Morgan for over $350m, a fabulous sum even in those days, equivalent to about $5.15bn at today's values. His subsequent reputation, however, rests not on the wealth he accumulated during his life, but on the wealth he distributed to charities and worthwhile causes, especially educational ones. Before he died he had given away some 90% of his fortune. He funded 3,000 public libraries in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He paid for the establishment of libraries in nearly every town in Scotland, and also paid for organs in many of their churches. He donated money to help set up the University of Birmingham.

Before his death from pneumonia on this day in 1919, Carnegie had donated over $350m to deserving causes, which today would be worth about $5.15bn. His "Andrew Carnegie Dictum" was:

* To spend the first third of one's life getting all the education one can.

* To spend the next third making all the money one can.

* To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.

His name lives on in New York's Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and other cities. He even had a dinosaur named after him when he sponsored the expedition that discovered it. He was so proud of "Dippi" that he had casts made of the bones and plaster replicas of the whole skeleton donated to several museums in Europe and South America.

Andrew Carnegie has been an inspiration to successors such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The message is that it's fine to make a huge sum of money, but that is by no means life's purpose. To dispose of it wisely and generously is a better way of feeling that one's life has been worthwhile.