I had served as messenger about a year, when Colonel John P. Glass, the manager of the downstairs office, who came in contact with the public, began selecting me occasionally to watch the office for a few minutes during his absence. As Mr. Glass was a highly popular man, and had political aspirations, these periods of absence became longer and more frequent, so that I soon became an adept in his branch of the work. I received messages from the public and saw that those that came from the operating-room were properly assigned to the boys for prompt delivery.
This was a trying position for a boy to fill, and at that time I was not popular with the other boys, who resented my exemption from part of my legitimate work. I was also taxed with being penurious in my habits – mean, as the boys had it. I did not spend my extra dimes, but they knew not the reason. Every penny that I could save I knew was needed at home. My parents were wise and nothing was withheld from me. I knew every week the receipts of each of the three who were working – my father, my mother, and myself. I also knew all the expenditures. We consulted upon the additions that could be made to our scanty stock of furniture and clothing and every new small article obtained was a source of joy. There never was a family more united.
Day by day, as mother could spare a silver half-dollar, it was carefully placed in a stocking and hid until two hundred were gathered, when I obtained a draft to repay the twenty pounds so generously lent to us by her friend Mrs. Henderson. That was a day we celebrated. The Carnegie family was free from debt. Oh, the happiness of that day! The debt was, indeed, discharged, but the debt of gratitude remains that never can be paid. Old Mrs. Henderson lives to-day. I go to her house as to a shrine, to see her upon my visits to Dunfermline; and whatever happens she can never be forgotten. [As I read these lines, written some years ago, I moan, „Gone, gone with the others!” Peace to the ashes of a dear, good, noble friend of my mother’s.]
The incident in my messenger life which at once lifted me to the seventh heaven, occurred one Saturday evening when Colonel Glass was paying the boys their month’s wages. We stood in a row before the counter, and Mr. Glass paid each one in turn. I was at the head and reached out my hand for the first eleven and a quarter dollars as they were pushed out by Mr. Glass. To my surprise he pushed them past me and paid the next boy. I thought it was a mistake, for I had heretofore been paid first, but it followed in turn with each of the other boys. My heart began to sink within me. Disgrace seemed coming. What had I done or not done? I was about to be told that there was no more work for me. I was to disgrace the family. That was the keenest pang of all. When all had been paid and the boys were gone, Mr. Glass took me behind the counter and said that I was worth more than the other boys, and he had resolved to pay me thirteen and a half dollars a month.
My head swam; I doubted whether I had heard him correctly. He counted out the money. I don’t know whether I thanked him; I don’t believe I did. I took it and made one bound for the door and scarcely stopped until I got home. I remember distinctly running or rather bounding from end to end of the bridge across the Allegheny River – inside on the wagon track because the foot-walk was too narrow. It was Saturday night. I handed over to mother, who was the treasurer of the family, the eleven dollars and a quarter and said nothing about the remaining two dollars and a quarter in my pocket – worth more to me then than all the millions I have made since.
Tom, a little boy of nine, and myself slept in the attic together, and after we were safely in bed I whispered the secret to my dear little brother. Even at his early age he knew what it meant, and we talked over the future. It was then, for the first time, I sketched to him how we would go into business together; that the firm of „Carnegie Brothers” would be a great one, and that father and mother should yet ride in their carriage. At the time that seemed to us to embrace everything known as wealth and most of what was worth striving for. The old Scotch woman, whose daughter married a merchant in London, being asked by her son-in-law to come to London and live near them, promising she should „ride in her carriage,” replied:
„What good could it do me to ride in a carriage gin I could na be seen by the folk in Strathbogie?” Father and mother would not only be seen in Pittsburgh, but should visit Dunfermline, their old home, in style.
On Sunday morning with father, mother, and Tom at breakfast, I produced the extra two dollars and a quarter. The surprise was great and it took some moments for them to grasp the situation, but it soon dawned upon them. Then father’s glance of loving pride and mother’s blazing eye soon wet with tears, told their feeling. It was their boy’s first triumph and proof positive that he was worthy of promotion. No subsequent success, or recognition of any kind, ever thrilled me as this did. I cannot even imagine one that could. Here was heaven upon earth. My whole world was moved to tears of joy.
Having to sweep out the operating-room in the mornings, the boys had an opportunity of practicing upon the telegraph instruments before the operators arrived. This was a new chance. I soon began to play with the key and to talk with the boys who were at the other stations who had like purposes to my own. Whenever one learns to do anything he has never to wait long for an opportunity of putting his knowledge to use.
One morning I heard the Pittsburgh call given with vigor. It seemed to me I could divine that some one wished greatly to communicate. I ventured to answer, and let the slip run. It was Philadelphia that wanted to send „a death message” to Pittsburgh immediately. Could I take it? I replied that I would try if they would send slowly. I succeeded in getting the message and ran out with it. I waited anxiously for Mr. Brooks to come in, and told him what I had dared to do. Fortunately, he appreciated it and complimented me, instead of scolding me for my temerity; yet dismissing me with the admonition to be very careful and not to make mistakes. It was not long before I was called sometimes to watch the instrument, while the operator wished to be absent, and in this way I learned the art of telegraphy.
We were blessed at this time with a rather indolent operator, who was only too glad to have me do his work. It was then the practice for us to receive the messages on a running slip of paper, from which the operator read to a copyist, but rumors had reached us that a man in the West had learned to read by sound and could really take a message by ear. This led me to practice the new method. One of the operators in the office, Mr. Maclean, became expert at it, and encouraged me by his success. I was surprised at the ease with which I learned the new language. One day, desiring to take a message in the absence of the operator, the old gentleman who acted as copyist resented my presumption and refused to „copy” for a messenger boy. I shut off the paper slip, took pencil and paper and began taking the message by ear. I shall never forget his surprise. He ordered me to give him back his pencil and pad, and after that there was never any difficulty between dear old Courtney Hughes and myself. He was my devoted friend and copyist.
Soon after this incident Joseph Taylor, the operator at Greensburg, thirty miles from Pittsburgh, wishing to be absent for two weeks, asked Mr. Brooks if he could not send some one to take his place. Mr. Brooks called me and asked whether I thought I could do the work. I replied at once in the affirmative.
„Well,” he said, „we will send you out there for a trial.”
I went out in the mail stage and had a most delightful trip. Mr. David Bruce, a well-known solicitor of Scottish ancestry, and his sister happened to be passengers. It was my first excursion, and my first glimpse of the country. The hotel at Greensburg was the first public house in which I had ever taken a meal. I thought the food wonderfully fine.
This was in 1852. Deep cuts and embankments near Greensburg were then being made for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and I often walked out in the early morning to see the work going forward, little dreaming that I was so soon to enter the service of that great corporation. This was the first responsible position I had occupied in the telegraph service, and I was so anxious to be at hand in case I should be needed, that one night very late I sat in the office during a storm, not wishing to cut off the connection. I ventured too near the key and for my boldness was knocked off my stool. A flash of lightning very nearly ended my career. After that I was noted in the office for caution during lightning storms. I succeeded in doing the small business at Greensburg to the satisfaction of my superiors, and returned to Pittsburgh surrounded with something like a halo, so far as the other boys were concerned. Promotion soon came. A new operator was wanted and Mr. Brooks telegraphed to my afterward dear friend James D. Reid, then general superintendent of the line, another fine specimen of the Scotsman, and took upon himself to recommend me as an assistant operator. The telegram from Louisville in reply stated that Mr. Reid highly approved of promoting „Andy,” provided Mr. Brooks considered him competent. The result was that I began as a telegraph operator at the tremendous salary of twenty-five dollars per month, which I thought a fortune. To Mr. Brooks and Mr. Reid I owe my promotion from the messenger’s station to the operating-room. I was then in my seventeenth year and had served my apprenticeship. I was now performing a man’s part, no longer a boy’s – earning a dollar every working day.
[Footnote 18: „I liked the boy’s looks, and it was very easy to see that though he was little he was full of spirit. He had not been with me a month when he began to ask whether I would teach him to telegraph. I began to instruct him and found him an apt pupil.” (James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America, New York, 1879.)
Reid was born near Dunfermline and forty years afterwards Mr. Carnegie was able to secure for him the appointment of United States Consul at Dunfermline.]
The operating-room of a telegraph office is an excellent school for a young man. He there has to do with pencil and paper, with composition and invention. And there my slight knowledge of British and European affairs soon stood me in good stead. Knowledge is sure to prove useful in one way or another. It always tells. The foreign news was then received by wire from Cape Race, and the taking of successive „steamer news” was one of the most notable of our duties. I liked this better than any other branch of the work, and it was soon tacitly assigned to me.
The lines in those days worked poorly, and during a storm much had to be guessed at. My guessing powers were said to be phenomenal, and it was my favorite diversion to fill up gaps instead of interrupting the sender and spending minutes over a lost word or two. This was not a dangerous practice in regard to foreign news, for if any undue liberties were taken by the bold operator, they were not of a character likely to bring him into serious trouble. My knowledge of foreign affairs became somewhat extensive, especially regarding the affairs of Britain, and my guesses were quite safe, if I got the first letter or two right.
The Pittsburgh newspapers had each been in the habit of sending a reporter to the office to transcribe the press dispatches. Later on one man was appointed for all the papers and he suggested that multiple copies could readily be made of the news as received, and it was arranged that I should make five copies of all press dispatches for him as extra work for which he was to pay me a dollar per week. This, my first work for the press, yielded very modest remuneration, to be sure; but it made my salary thirty dollars per month, and every dollar counted in those days. The family was gradually gaining ground; already future millionairedom seemed dawning.
Another step which exercised a decided influence over me was joining the „Webster Literary Society” along with my companions, the trusty five already named. We formed a select circle and stuck closely together. This was quite an advantage for all of us. We had before this formed a small debating club which met in Mr. Phipps’s father’s room in which his few journeymen shoemakers worked during the day. Tom Miller recently alleged that I once spoke nearly an hour and a half upon the question, „Should the judiciary be elected by the people?” but we must mercifully assume his memory to be at fault. The „Webster” was then the foremost club in the city and proud were we to be thought fit for membership. We had merely been preparing ourselves in the cobbler’s room.
I know of no better mode of benefiting a youth than joining such a club as this. Much of my reading became such as had a bearing on forthcoming debates and that gave clearness and fixity to my ideas. The self-possession I afterwards came to have before an audience may very safely be attributed to the experience of the „Webster Society.” My two rules for speaking then (and now) were: Make yourself perfectly at home before your audience, and simply talk to them, not at them. Do not try to be somebody else; be your own self and talk, never „orate” until you can’t help it.
I finally became an operator by sound, discarding printing entirely. The accomplishment was then so rare that people visited the office to be satisfied of the extraordinary feat. This brought me into such notice that when a great flood destroyed all telegraph communication between Steubenville and Wheeling, a distance of twenty-five miles, I was sent to the former town to receive the entire business then passing between the East and the West, and to send every hour or two the dispatches in small boats down the river to Wheeling. In exchange every returning boat brought rolls of dispatches which I wired East, and in this way for more than a week the entire telegraphic communication between the East and the West via Pittsburgh was maintained.
While at Steubenville I learned that my father was going to Wheeling and Cincinnati to sell the tablecloths he had woven. I waited for the boat, which did not arrive till late in the evening, and went down to meet him. I remember how deeply affected I was on finding that instead of taking a cabin passage, he had resolved not to pay the price, but to go down the river as a deck passenger. I was indignant that one of so fine a nature should be compelled to travel thus. But there was comfort in saying:
„Well, father, it will not be long before mother and you shall ride in your carriage.”
My father was usually shy, reserved, and keenly sensitive, very saving of praise (a Scotch trait) lest his sons might be too greatly uplifted; but when touched he lost his self-control. He was so upon this occasion, and grasped my hand with a look which I often see and can never forget. He murmured slowly:
„Andra, I am proud of you.”
The voice trembled and he seemed ashamed of himself for saying so much. The tear had to be wiped from his eye, I fondly noticed, as he bade me good-night and told me to run back to my office. Those words rang in my ear and warmed my heart for years and years. We understood each other. How reserved the Scot is! Where he feels most he expresses least. Quite right. There are holy depths which it is sacrilege to disturb. Silence is more eloquent than words. My father was one of the most lovable of men, beloved of his companions, deeply religious, although non-sectarian and non-theological, not much of a man of the world, but a man all over for heaven. He was kindness itself, although reserved. Alas! he passed away soon after returning from this Western tour just as we were becoming able to give him a life of leisure and comfort.
After my return to Pittsburgh it was not long before I made the acquaintance of an extraordinary man, Thomas A. Scott, one to whom the term „genius” in his department may safely be applied. He had come to Pittsburgh as superintendent of that division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Frequent telegraphic communication was necessary between him and his superior, Mr. Lombaert, general superintendent at Altoona. This brought him to the telegraph office at nights, and upon several occasions I happened to be the operator. One day I was surprised by one of his assistants, with whom I was acquainted, telling me that Mr. Scott had asked him whether he thought that I could be obtained as his clerk and telegraph operator, to which this young man told me he had replied:
„That is impossible. He is now an operator.”
But when I heard this I said at once:
„Not so fast. He can have me. I want to get out of a mere office life. Please go and tell him so.”
The result was I was engaged February 1, 1853, at a salary of thirty-five dollars a month as Mr. Scott’s clerk and operator. A raise in wages from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars per month was the greatest I had ever known. The public telegraph line was temporarily put into Mr. Scott’s office at the outer depot and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company was given permission to use the wire at seasons when such use would not interfere with the general public business, until their own line, then being built, was completed.