The Robber Barons


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Wikimedia America's tycoons in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pejoratively nicknamed " robber barons ," built massive empires and accumulated unprecedented wealth. Many of these men gained their vast fortunes either at the expense of their factory workers or by methods that were considered unscrupulous even back then — a time when insider trading wasn't yet outlawed. But some of them also gave away their fortunes to build universities, hospitals, libraries, and museums that still dot America today.


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The debate over business ethics continues to this day. And so, a look at the ruthless business practices and accomplishments of 19 tycoons who built and ruled America. Eventually, he built the American Fur Company, which is generally referred to as America's first business monopoly. He also briefly dabbled in smuggling opium to China via his American Fur Company ships — even though China banned the drug about two decades earlier.

His will left a huge sum of money to create a free, public library, which eventually became the Astor Library in New York City. Source: Britannica , History. He sold everything before the Civil War to invest in railways, and became the richest man in the US by the war's end. However, he also lost his favorite son in the war, which caused him to fall into a "drink-fueled depression. Bonus fact: Once, in a letter to business rivals, Vanderbilt wrote , "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me.

Tech giants are the robber barons of our time

I won't sue you, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Source: History. He was forced into bankruptcy in the aftermath of the Panic of , but eventually rebuilt his fortune by after investing in a Utah silver mine. Source: Britannica , National Parks Service. James Duke acquired the license to use the Bonsack machine, the first automated cigarette-making machine, which provided a mechanized alternative to the older method of rolling cigarettes by hand.

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He also innovated in the field of promotional events, giving out free samples of cigarettes to immigrants, hoping that they'd come back as paying customers later. Bonus fact: He later established the Duke Endowment. A portion of which went to Trinity College — which was later renamed Duke University. Source: Encyclopedia , Duke Library. He first made his wealth from managing railroads, but eventually moved into steel. His Carnegie Steel Company transformed steel production in the US, and was the largest of its kind in the world by In , the company tried to lower wages at a steel plant, but the employees responded with the Homestead Strike.

Carnegie was away at the time, but did not escape criticism. Bonus fact: When he was young, Carnegie took advantage of a library for working boys, which had been opened by Colonel James Anderson and was super rare at the time.


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  • He was so thankful for the library that he vowed to help others in a similar fashion if he ever made money. Source: Biography , Carnegie. The firm even built its own oil barrels and employed scientists to find new uses for petroleum by-products. Rockefeller retired from the day-to-day operations by the mids. He donated over half a billion dollars to educational, religious, and scientific causes, including the establishment of the University of Chicago. He also established the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission , which was the first attempt at organized disease eradication and significantly reduced the incidence of hookworm in the southern states.

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    The Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of antitrust laws and ordered it to dissolve in Bonus fact: Rockefeller commemorated September 26, the day he started his first "real" job as an office clerk at age 16, with an annual celebration. Source: History , PBS. Morgan was involved in reorganizing and consolidating railroads after the industry overheated — and gained control of a lot of railroads' stock in the process. He was also the major force behind the General Electric merger in , and helped consolidate US Steel.

    "The 'Robber Barons'" by Ayn Rand

    He also helped Wall Street get through the crisis. Bonus fact: "Jingle Bells" was written by J. Morgan's uncle, James L. The song was actually written about Thanksgiving — and was thought to be a total failure when first published. Source: History , Britannica. Flagler was the one of the cofounders of Standard Oil and, according to Rockefeller himself, was the "brains" behind the operation.

    Marx developed his theory of Communism as a peoples Trust at this time and the more emotional outrage of Americans at awful working conditions and the wrecking of the legal and political system is captured for example in Jack Londons "The Iron Heel" Josephson tells the story of the massive industrialisation of America that occurred in the last quarter of the 19 th century. It was the greatest boom of them all, generating a giant interlocking system that covered steel, oil, railways, coal, food processing and banking. As Vanderbilt said, "What do I care about the law? What are their values and their politics?

    Given their prominence, we know surprisingly little about our modern moguls — for various reasons. One is that we are remarkably incurious about what makes them tick. We focus instead on the fact that one of them Zuckerberg wears a hoodie even when being interviewed by investment bankers; or that Larry Page, co-founder of Google, refused to stop using his laptop when a big media mogul came to talk to him; or that Bill Gates used to rock furiously backwards and forwards in a rocking chair when being interviewed for an anti-trust case; or that Steve Jobs drove a comparatively modest sports car and lived in a small, old-fashioned house rather than the postmodern minimalist palace that many people would have predicted.

    But this is all superficial stuff, the journalistic fluff of celebrity profiles and gossip columns. What's much more significant about these moguls is that they share a mindset that renders them blind to the untidiness and contradictions of life, not to mention the fears and anxieties of lesser beings. They are technocrats who cleave to a worldview that holds that if something is technically possible then it should be done. How about digitising all the books in the world? No problem : you just throw resources and technology at the task.

    And if publishers protest about infringement of copyright and authors moan about their moral rights, well, that just shows how antediluvian they are. Or how about photographing every street in Europe, or even the world? Again, no problem: it's technically feasible, after all. And if Germans object to the resulting intrusion on their privacy, well let them complain and we'll pixelate the sods. Oh — and when we discover that those same cars have been hoovering up the details of our home Wi-Fi networks, their bosses say " Oops! Sorry: it was a mistake.

    Same story with Mark Zuckerberg's fanatical, almost sociopathic, belief that the default setting for life should be "public" rather than "private". The prevailing technocratic motto is: if something can be done, then it ought to be done. It's all about progress, stoopid. Actually, it's all about values. And money. The trouble is that technocrats don't do values. They just do rationality. They love good design, efficiency, elegance — and profits. That's why one of the poster children of the industry is Apple's creative genius, Jonathan Ive, who designs beautiful kit in California which is then assembled in Chinese factories.

    And when the execrable working conditions prevalent in such places are exposed, the company's senior executives profess themselves surprised and appalled and resolve to do everything they can to ameliorate things. And we believe them — and continue eagerly to purchase the gizmos manufactured in such oppressive plants.


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    Why are we so credulous, so forgiving? It's partly because wealth — like political power — is a powerful aphrodisiac. But it's mainly because we accept these people at their own valuation. We've bought into their narrative. They see themselves as progressives, as folks who want to make the world a better, more efficient, more rational place. We're charmed by their corporate mantras — for example "Don't be evil" Google or "Move fast and break things" Facebook. In their black turtlenecks and faded jeans they don't seem to have anything in common with Rupert Murdoch or the grim-faced, silk-hatted capitalist bosses of old.

    Instead of grinding the faces of the poor, our modern technology magnates move effortlessly from tech forums to TED to All Things D to Davos, reclining on spotlit sofas discussing APIs and cloud computing with respectful or admiring moderators. What gets lost in the reality distortion field that surrounds these technology moguls is that, in the end, they are fanatically ambitious, competitive capitalists.

    Robber baron (industrialist)

    They may look cool and have soothing bedside manners, but in the end these guys are in business not just to make money, but to establish sprawling, quasi-monopolistic commercial empires. And they will do whatever it takes to achieve those ambitions. The strongest link that binds them is that they are all pioneers in the exploitation of virgin territory, and that rings some historical bells. When the internet first exploded into public consciousness in the s as a result of the web, many observers were reminded of what happened in the United States after the end of the civil war in Then, there was an exciting sense of a continent to be explored, gold and mineral resources to be discovered and exploited, land for anyone who was prepared to work it, industries to be founded, opportunities galore.

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