February 25: man of steel

2012/02/25 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1901 John Pierpont Morgan incorporated US Steel.

Call him a heroic industrialist or robber baron, Morgan (1837-1913) was unquestionably one of the great figures of his day.  Other tycoons built their wealth on railroads, or real estate, or utilities: Morgan had his fingers in everything.  After the close of the Civil War he seized power of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad; by the 80s he oversaw a major portion of the industry.  In the ’70s he broke the privileges of Jay Cooke; after the Panic of 1893 he baile out the federal treasury with an infusion of gold–over 200,000 pounds (yes you read that correctly) from his personal stockpile.  In 1892 he merged a few utilities to create General Electric.  He cobbled together a bunch of not-inconsiderable metals businesses (one of them was Carnegie Steel) to create the United States Steel Corporation, the world’s first billion-dollar company.

Employing such strategies as economies of scale, reduction of transportation costs, expanded product lines, US Steel wa able to compete with established firms in Europe, as one of America’s first truly global companies.  It also cast a huge shadow at home, monopolizing upwards of two-thirds of the American steel market, dominating the construction of bridges, ships, railroad cars, wire and nails–at a time when, of course, construction in America was going gang-busters.

Brilliantly captured in Steichen’s portrait (above), Morgan looks to be ready to crush the arm of the chair.  The power of the portrait really comes across in Morgan’s cold, steely eyes, which evince a will that would not be stopped; at one time he is recorded to have said “I don’t know as I want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do. I hire him to tell how to do what I want to do.” More than an entrepreneur or a businessman, Morgan was a force of nature–more the surging unstoppableness of a tsunami than the chaotic whirl of a tornado.  Maker of a mixed legacy to be sure, he was also a linchpin of one of the most essential industries to American construction in the twentieth century.

Image: portrait of J. P. Morgan by Edward Steichen, 1903 (from this source)

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