Among the many things that Congress is supposed to be working on (but isn’t) is immigration reform. While it’s possible that certain politicians have a point and everybody eligible for the DREAM Act is going to use it to smuggle heroin-filled sombreros across the border, it’s useful to look back at some of the immigrants (and more than a few “anchor babies”) who became a part of American cultural and economic history.
The man who would come to dominate the American steel industry and create a new philosophy of wealthy philanthropy spent the first few years of his life in a one-room Scottish cottage his family shared with another.
After the economy in his native Dumferline went from bad to worse, Andrew Carnegie’s family moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Young Andrew found work in a cotton mill where he worked twelve hours a day and six days a week for the princely sum of $1.20 per week.
His later job, however, as a secretary with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company led to fast promotion and friendships with a lot of powerful, influential industrialists. In his later years, Carnegie championed the idea that a life spent amassing wealth was meaningless if the money was just hoarded in an essay first titled “Wealth” and then popularized as the “Gospel of Wealth.”
While Carnegie’s reputation with labor advocates was never good (his Homestead Steel Works was the site of one of America’s bloodiest crackdowns on unionizing workers), he went to his grave having spent nearly $5 billion (adjusted for inflation) of his personal fortune founding libraries, establishing universities, and generally trying to make America a better place.
Pierre Omidyar found his calling early in life. Soon after his Iranian father moved the family from Paris to Maryland, the principal of Omidyar’s high school caught the future founder of eBay skipping P.E. to mess around with the school’s computers.
Instead of punishing the precocious teen with a stern talking-to or educational wedgie, the principal put Pierre to work, hiring him to write a program to print catalog cards for the school library.
After graduating from Tufts University in 1988, Omidyar went to work at Apple subsidiary Claris, but his most famous invention came from his need to get rid of a broken laser pointer.
Testing out a prototype “auction” program on his personal site, Omidyar discovered that someone was willing to pay $14 for a non-functioning $30 laser pointer, proving both that person-to-person transactions could be made safely online and that people will buy any dumb thing you can sell them on the Internet.
Today, Omidyar and his wife devote their time to the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm and development agency.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Although fans of Elisha Grey are even now writing us furious hate mail for saying this, Alexander Graham Bell is generally regarded as the father of the modern telephone and microphone.
These inventions were the fruits of a life spent in Scotland and England studying deafness and experimenting with sound. A series of tragic illnesses led Bell and his surviving family to seek a new start in the New World, settling first in Ontario and later in Massachusetts, where Bell found work at the famous Boston School for the Deaf.
During his work with Thomas Watson on the telephone, Bell spent much of his time in Canada, but chose to patent the device (and found Bell Telephone) in America and technically never became a Canadian citizen, so we’re claiming “Aleck” as our own.
We’re sorry, Canadians / Nous sommes desoles, Canadiens. (If it makes you or the Elisha Gray fans feel any better, Bell had a surprisingly tough time getting his invention off the ground.)
WILLIAM PROCTER AND JAMES GAMBLE
There’s no more moving testament to the power of America to unite its citizens than an Englishman and an Irishman getting together to invent soap that floats. English candlemaker William Procter and Irish soapmaker James Gamble intended to make their fortunes in the American West, but illness and ill fortune stranded them both in Cincinnati where they met and married sisters Olivia and Elizabeth Norris.
Their new father-in-law recognized the two men’s potential and convinced them to overcome the typical Anglo-Irish grievances (genocide, terrorism, different beer preferences) to found a joint soap-and-candle factory in 1837.
Weathering economic turmoil and riskily expanding their industrial plant, the sons of the Emerald and Sceptred Isles hit it big when they won the contracts to provide the Union Army with soap and candles during the Civil War. Today Procter & Gamble is one of the world’s largest corporations and/or Satanic cults.
In his youth, Ieoh Ming Pei dreamed of studying overseas, finally deciding to study in America based on two things: the architectural reputation of the University of Pennsylvania and the films of Bing Crosby.
American college comedies like Crosby’s appealed to Pei, who had endured a ridiculously stern education in the missionary-run schools of Shanghai (in middle school, he and his fellow students were only allowed one half-day out of the month for leisure time).
When the University of Pennsylvania proved to be stodgily committed to the old Beaux-Arts style, Pei jumped ship to MIT where he discovered the works of Switzerland’s Le Corbusier and America’s own Frank Lloyd Wright.
These and the works of Bahaus architects like Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer (later teachers and close friends of Pei) became the foundation of I.M. Pei’s distinctive style, with rectilinear forms, open spaces, and as much light and fresh air as possible.
Pei was one of the most famous architects of the Sixties and is still much sought-after today, but there’s one part of his long and storied career he’s rarely mentioned.
From 1942 to the autumn of 1945, he accepted an invitation to the Army’s National Defense Research Committee. As a committee member told him, “if you know how to build you should also know how to destroy,” and Pei’s architectural and engineering skills were set to work determining the best way to destroy Japanese buildings and cities.
As a boy growing up in the Scottish town of Dunbar, John Muir spent most of his childhood either starting fights or looking for birds nests. Based on the passion that Muir applied to his later career as a naturalist and preservationist, the world lost a truly hellacious fighter when the young Scotsman first became interested in botany.
The Muir family moved to Wisconsin when he was eleven, where the unruly John sporadically attended UW-Madison before jumping ship to Canada to avoid being drafted in the Civil War. While he was shirking his patriotic duty to die a horrific death, Muir wandered the forest and swamps around Lake Huron, gaining an appreciation for nature as well as experience as a woodsman.
After an accident nearly cost him his sight, Muir resolved to celebrate the beauty of nature in its purest form and advocate for its preservation. Hiking a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida, Muir took a boat to California and discovered the wilds of Yosemite.
He was so taken with its beauty that he spent most of the rest of his life fighting to preserve the area as a national park. By founding the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir began a campaign of wilderness preservation that has led many to refer to him as “the Father of the National Parks.”
You may not immediately recognize the name of Moscow-born computer scientist Sergey Brin, but it’s almost certain that you’ve used his invention lately.
Brin was brought to America at the age of six by his parents Michael and Eugenia, a pair of Russian Jewish mathematicians who had seen their dreams and careers curtailed by widespread anti-Semitism in the Communist Party and Russia as a whole.
After attending an international conference in Warsaw, Brin’s father found that his Western equivalents were not “monsters,” and soon applied for an exit visa. The backlash was quick and severe.
Michael Brin was “promptly fired” and the family scraped by on a series of odd temporary jobs until approval finally came in 1979. Sergey was enrolled in a Maryland Montessori school, where he naturally excelled at math and developed an early interest in computers.
That interest paid off fifteen years later when Brin found himself sharing a room with Google co-founder Larry Page.
Born Israel Isidore Beilin in what is today Belarus, Irving Berlin and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews that decided they preferred the uncertainties of life in Gilded Age America to getting their houses burned down by drunk Cossacks every other weekend.
The Beilins found life on the Lower East Side hard, with their father unable to find work as a temple cantor (the “lead vocal” in Jewish religious music) and dying when Irving was only thirteen. Poorly educated and barely employable, Irving found the only way he could support his mother and seven siblings was to use the vocal skills he’d inherited from his father in the streets and saloons of the Bowery.
The teenage singer’s jazzy, patriotic style was instantly popular among all the races and classes of the Lower East Side, with one Irish bar owner describing him as “the Yiddish Yankee Doodle.”
Few musicians have equaled Berlin’s subsequent meteoric rise to fame or his enduring impact on national music, being responsible for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and 1938’s Armistice Day commemoration “God Bless America.”
Arguably, revolutionizing the computer industry and becoming one of the most respected and influential businessmen in Silicon Valley may not be the most impressive thing that Andrew Grove has accomplished in his lifetime.
Born Jewish in 1936 to Hungarian parents, András István Gróf survived scarlet fever, a Fascist home government, a Nazi occupation, a Red Army siege, a Soviet invasion and the chaos of Hungary’s spontaneous and ill-fated revolution of 1956, finally arriving in New York at the age of 20 with almost no money but a boundless desire to learn.
Within ten years, Grove had gone from busing tables to pay for his classes at City College of New York to a position as assistant director of Fairchild Semiconductor, where he pioneered the development of integrated circuits.
In 1968, Grove founded Intel, where he fostered an environment where managers encouraged risk and experimentation among engineering teams, a business model that became the foundation of and inspiration for hundreds of California tech start-ups.
Next: Photos from the International Tattoo Convention
Austro-Hungarian soldier, politician and mule hostler Joseph Pulitzer lived a life as colorful and sensational as the stories and comics that he ran in his newspapers.
After his father died and the family business folded, an impoverished Pulitzer signed up with American military recruiters and found himself riding with the 1st New York Volunteer Cavalry for the last few months of the war.
He served in a company almost totally comprised of fellow German-speaking immigrants. Still poor at war’s end, Pulitzer rode the rails, hobo-style, to St. Louis and a host of terrible jobs, including a mule-handling gig that he quit after two days.
It was in German-dominated St. Louis that Pulitzer first developed his taste for the news, working 16-hour days as a reporter for the bilingual Westliche Post. As a reporter, he built a network of friends so influential that he successfully ran for state legislature despite being three years under the required age and still not that great at speaking English.
That was the beginning of an incredible rise to professional and journalistic fame that culminated with his triumphant return to New York City and his purchase of the New York World, a paper that went from losing forty grand a year to becoming the largest newspaper in the country.
As ruler of the World, Pulitzer essentially invented 20th-century American journalism: the good (in-depth investigative journalism by Nellie Bly and others), the bad (the sensational “yellow journalism” of his famous rivalry with William Randolph Hearst) and the funny (America’s first color comic strip “The Yellow Kid”).