(p. 101) [Carnegie] . . . organized his own company to secure the rights to the Dodd process for strengthening iron rails by coating them with steel facings. Thomson agreed to appropriate $20,000 of Pennsylvania Railroad funds to test the new technology.
On March 12, 1867, Thomson wrote to tell Carnegie that his Dodd-processed rails had failed their first test: “treatment under the hammer…. You may as well abandon the Patent–It will not do if this Rail is a sample.” Three days later, Thomson wrote Carnegie again, this time marking his letter with a handwritten “Private” in the top left-hand corner and “a word to the wise” penned in just below. Carnegie had apparently asked Thomson for more time–and/or money–to continue his experiments. Thomson replied that the experiments his engineers had made had so “impaired my confidence in this process that I don’t feel at liberty to increase our order for these Rails.”
Instead of giving up, Carnegie pushed forward, hawking his new steel-faced iron rails to other railroad presidents, attempting to get a new contract with Thomson, and reorganizing the Freedom Iron Company in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, in which he was a major investor, into Freedom Iron and Steel. In the spring of 1867, he succeeded, despite Thomson’s misgivings, in getting the approval to manufacture and deliver a second 500-ton batch of steel-faced rails. The new rails fared as poorly as the old ones. There would be no further contracts forthcoming from the Pennsylvania Railroad or any other railroad.
Carnegie tried to bluff his way through. When his contacts in England recommended that he purchase the American rights to a better process for facing iron rails with steel, this one invented by a Mr. Webb, Carnegie retooled his mill for the new process. He was fooled a second time. Not only was the Webb process as impractical as the Dodd, but there was, as there (p. 102) had been with the Dodd process, confusion as to who held the American patent rights. Within a year, the company Carnegie had organized to produce the new steel-faced rails was out of business.
. . .
These early failures did not deter him from investing in other start-up companies and technologies, but he would in future be a bit more careful before committing his capital. In March 1869, Tom Scott solicited his advice about investing in the rights to a new “Chrome Steel process.” Carnegie replied that his “advice (which don’t cost anything if of no value) would be to have nothing to do with this or any other great change in the manufacture of steel or iron…. I know at least six inventors who have the secret all are so anxiously awaiting…. That there is to be a great change in the manufacture of iron and steel some of these years is probable, but exactly what form it is to take no one knows. I would advise you to steer clear of the whole thing. One will win, but many lose and you and I not being practical men would very likely be among the more numerous class. At least we would wager at very long odds. There are many enterprises where we can go in even.”
Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
(Note: bracketed name, ellipsis near start, and ellipsis between paragraphs added; ellipsis internal to other paragraphs, in original.)
(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw’s book are the same.)