Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt started working at age 11 as a deck hand on his father’s ferry boat on the Hudson River. In due course he became owner of his own boat and was soon engaged in the lucrative Hudson River traffic between New York and Albany. With the profits he made from his boat business he began to invest in railroads in the 1830s, eventually owning a number of lines that merged into the Grand Central Railroad, which operated between New York City and Chicago.
John D. Rockefeller arose from a position of bookkeeper to create the Standard Oil Company in 1870, becoming in the process the richest man in the world and America’s first billionaire. Ruthless in his business practices, he drove smaller oil companies out of business by accepting short-term losses in the sale of kerosene and other products, undercutting the prices of competitors. By 1904 Standard Oil controlled about 90% of the oil business in the United States and had large investments overseas.
Andrew Carnegie started working in a factory at age 13 for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for about two dollars a week. Bright, industrious, and a voracious reader, Carnegie was the epitome of the self-made man. From his job as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he rose in the company and became more widely engaged in the railroad business. With the capital he accumulated, in the years after the Civil War he turned his attention to the production of iron goods. By creating profitable partnerships and investing widely and wisely, he eventually saw his Federal Steel Company become the core of the United States Steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar industry in the world.
Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867 – 4 July 1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
Her achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies into the treatment of neoplasms were conducted using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I, she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.
Charles Michael Schwab (February 18, 1862 – September 18, 1939) was an American steel magnate. Under his leadership, Bethlehem Steel became the second largest steel maker in the United States, and one of the most important heavy manufacturers in the world. Charles Michael Schwab was born in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, the son of Pauline (née Farabaugh) and John Anthony Schwab.All four of his grandparents were Roman Catholic immigrants from Germany. Schwab was raised in Loretto, Pennsylvania, which he considered his home town. He attended Saint Francis College (now Saint Francis University), but left after two years and obtaining two certificates to find work in Pittsburgh.
Amasa Leland Stanford (March 9, 1824 – June 21, 1893) was an American tycoon, industrialist, politician, and the father (with his wife, Jane) of Stanford University. Migrating to California from New York at the time of the Gold Rush, he became a successful merchant and wholesaler, and continued to build his business empire. He spent one two-year term as governor of California after his election in 1861, and later eight years as a senator from the state. As president of Southern Pacific Railroad and, beginning in 1861, Central Pacific, he had tremendous power in the region and a lasting impact on California. He is widely considered a robber baron.
Born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Edison rose from humble beginnings to work as an inventor of major technology. Setting up a lab in Menlo Park, some of the products he developed included the telegraph, phonograph, electric light bulb, alkaline storage batteries and Kinetograph (a camera for motion pictures). He died on October 18, 1931, in West Orange, New Jersey.
In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber. By the mid-19th century, cotton had become America’s leading export. Despite its success, the gin made little money for Whitney due to patent-infringement issues. Also, his invention offered Southern planters a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition. Based in part on his reputation for creating the cotton gin, Whitney later secured a major contract to build muskets for the U.S. government. Through this project, he promoted the idea of interchangeable parts–standardized, identical parts that made for faster assembly and easier repair of various devices. For his work, he is credited as a pioneer of American manufacturing.
Born on April 17, 1837, in Hartford, Connecticut, J.P. Morgan would later become one of the most famous financiers in business history. In 1871, Morgan began his own private banking company, which later became known as J.P. Morgan & Co., one of the leading financial firms in the country. Morgan died on March 31, 1913, in Rome, Italy. He was hailed as a master of finance at the time of his death, and continues to be considered one of the country’s leading businessmen.
George Stephenson (1781 – 1848) Mechanical engineer, who developed the steam engine for use in trains. He was a key figure in building the 25 mile Stockton and Darlington railway. The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was a railway company that operated in north-east England from 1825 to 1863. The world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, its first line connected collieries near Sheldon with Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington, and was officially opened on 27 September 1825. Stephenson also built the first intercity railway between Liverpool and Manchester – ushering in the ‘railway age’.
Born on July 30, 1863, near Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford created the Ford Model T car in 1908 and went on to develop the assembly line mode of production, which revolutionized the industry. As a result, Ford sold millions of cars and became a world-famous company head. The company lost its market dominance but had a lasting impact on other technological development and U.S. infrastructure.
The invention of the sewing machine by Connecticut native Elias Howe in 1846 touched off a technological, industrial, and social revolution. By making possible the manufacture of inexpensive clothing, it greatly speeded up the pace of industrialization (which had begun only a few decades earlier with the inventions of the spinning jenny, power loom, and cotton gin) and led to the building of newer, larger, and more modern textile mills, such as the Willimantic Linen Company’s great granite Mill Number Two and modern brick Mill Number Four. By changing the way that clothing was manufactured, it spelled the end of cottage industry and the old putting out system and ushered in the age of the sweatshop. By appealing to middle class homemakers, it facilitated the Cult of Domesticity and provided middle class women with the opportunity to prove that they could master complex machinery. Widely available a half century before typewriters or automobiles, more than any other machine the sewing machine came to symbolize women’s work in the modern era.
Ottmar Mergenthaler (May 11, 1854 – October 28, 1899) was a German-born inventor who has been called a second Gutenberg, as Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine, the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. This machine revolutionized the art of printing.
William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) was a British scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. His work in the 1840s on photomechanical reproduction led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. He was the holder of a controversial patent which affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain. He was also a noted photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives, and made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York
Johann Alois Senefelder (6 November 1771 – 26 February 1834) was a German actor and playwright who invented the printing technique of lithography in the 1790s. Problems with the printing of his play Mathilde von Altenstein caused him to fall into debt, and unable to afford to publish a new play he had written, Senefelder experimented with a novel etching technique using a greasy, acid resistant ink as a resist on a smooth fine-grained stone of Solnhofen limestone. He then discovered that this could be extended to allow printing from the flat surface of the stone alone, the first planographic process in printing.