Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 177:

by John H. H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 177.

Today, we meet two wealthy men. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

America's emergence as an industrial power in the late 19th century rested heavily on two substances -- oil and iron. And two people played a large role in providing these materials.

Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835, and his family moved to Pennsylvania when young Andrew was thirteen. John D. Rockefeller was born four years later in upstate New York -- the son of a trader, who moved him to Cleveland when he was six.

Carnegie's early jobs practically mapped out the technological emergence of 19th-century America. He was a bobbin boy in a textile factory, a telegraph operator, an engine tender. Then he worked with railroads and with oil wells. But when he was 38 he started the Keystone Iron Works, and he stayed with that until 1901. By then Keystone Iron had become U.S. Steel, and Andrew Carnegie had become one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

John D. Rockefeller went into business when he was 20, and he picked up his first oil well as a sideline. He soon saw that that was the right horse to ride. Even before automobiles and airplanes laid their heavy claim on oil, it'd begun replacing coal in the power industries.

Carnegie and Rockefeller -- both staggeringly wealthy by the 20th century -- came to giving by two different paths: Even before he'd reached his apogee, Carnegie wrote that a wealthy man's life should go in two stages -- first gaining wealth, then using that wealth to improve the general welfare. And that's what he did. He established Carnegie Institute, Tuskegee Institute, and many other schools. He became the patron saint of libraries. He set up charitable foundations.

Rockefeller, on the other hand, began giving when anti-trust forces closed in on his Standard Oil Company. He also set up charitable corporations of all sorts to give away excess money. He began by creating the University of Chicago. Whatever his motives, Rockefeller gave birth to a dynasty of charitable giving that extends right down to the present day.

Of course, Andrew Carnegie makes the better hero. He, after all, was part and parcel of the emerging technologies that made our country. And his giving sprang from some deep-seated core of principle. Yet the Rockefeller clan assumed the mantle of public service. They've become political leaders and professional givers -- one died doing anthropological research in New Guinea.

Money creates responsibility. Sooner or later, we realize that we have a decent world to live in only when the money created by our technological foresight comes back around to increase knowledge and beauty in that world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Stereopticon image courtesy of Margaret Culbertson

Turn of the century oil wells --
the kind that made Rockefeller rich

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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