by Jason Crawford · April 8, 2021 · 22 min read
I’ve been reading Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography, published late in his life, in the early 1900s. Here are some interesting themes and quotes. (Emphasis added in all block quotes below.)
One key to Carnegie‘s success in the iron business is that he was one of the first to seriously apply chemistry:
Looking back to-day it seems incredible that only forty years ago (1870) chemistry in the United States was an almost unknown agent in connection with the manufacture of pig iron. It was the agency, above all others, most needful in the manufacture of iron and steel. The blast-furnace manager of that day was usually a rude bully… who in addition to his other acquirements was able to knock down a man now and then as a lesson to the other unruly spirits under him. He was supposed to diagnose the condition of the furnace by instinct, to possess some almost supernatural power of divination, like his congener in the country districts who was reputed to be able to locate an oil well or water supply by means of a hazel rod. He was a veritable quack doctor who applied whatever remedies occurred to him for the troubles of his patient.
Part of the problem was that the ores and other inputs to smelting were inconsistent in composition:
The Lucy Furnace was out of one trouble and into another, owing to the great variety of ores, limestone, and coke which were then supplied with little or no regard to their component parts. This state of affairs became intolerable to us.
This is where chemistry was able to help:
We finally decided to dispense with the rule-of-thumb-and-intuition manager, and to place [Henry Curry] in charge of the furnace….
The next step taken was to find a chemist as Mr. Curry’s assistant and guide. We found the man in a learned German, Dr. Fricke, and great secrets did the doctor open up to us. Ironstone from mines that had a high reputation was now found to contain ten, fifteen, and even twenty per cent less iron than it had been credited with. Mines that hitherto had a poor reputation we found to be now yielding superior ore. The good was bad and the bad was good, and everything was topsyturvy. Nine tenths of all the uncertainties of pig-iron making were dispelled under the burning sun of chemical knowledge.
It wasn’t just that some materials were of low quality, but that the right mix of materials was needed, no matter the purity of the inputs:
At a most critical period when it was necessary for the credit of the firm that the blast furnace should make its best product, it had been stopped because an exceedingly rich and pure ore had been substituted for an inferior ore—an ore which did not yield more than two thirds of the quantity of iron of the other. The furnace had met with disaster because too much lime had been used to flux this exceptionally pure ironstone. The very superiority of the materials had involved us in serious losses.
What fools we had been! But then there was this consolation: we were not as great fools as our competitors. It was years after we had taken chemistry to guide us that it was said by the proprietors of some other furnaces that they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known that they could not afford to be without one. Looking back it seems pardonable to record that we were the first to employ a chemist at blast furnaces—something our competitors pronounced extravagant.
With better chemical assessment of ores, Carnegie was able to arbitrage his supplies:
The mines which had no reputation and the products of which many firms would not permit to be used in their blast furnaces found a purchaser in us. Those mines which were able to obtain an enormous price for their products, owing to a reputation for quality, we quietly ignored. A curious illustration of this was the celebrated Pilot Knob mine in Missouri. Its product was, so to speak, under a cloud. A small portion of it only could be used, it was said, without obstructing the furnace. Chemistry told us that it was low in phosphorus, but very high in silicon. There was no better ore and scarcely any as rich, if it were properly fluxed. We therefore bought heavily of this and received the thanks of the proprietors for rendering their property valuable.
It is hardly believable that for several years we were able to dispose of the highly phosphoric cinder from the puddling furnaces at a higher price than we had to pay for the pure cinder from the heating furnaces of our competitors—a cinder which was richer in iron than the puddled cinder and much freer from phosphorus. Upon some occasion a blast furnace had attempted to smelt the flue cinder, and from its greater purity the furnace did not work well with a mixture intended for an impurer article; hence for years it was thrown over the banks of the river at Pittsburgh by our competitors as worthless.
He gives another example later of discovering a property with ore that had no phosphorus, “really an ore suitable for making Bessemer steel” (the Bessemer process could not handle phosphoric ores, until later improved by Gilchrist and Thomas). Again, it was the purity of the ore that was a problem:
We found the mine had been worked for a charcoal blast furnace fifty or sixty years before, but it had not borne a good reputation then, the reason no doubt being that its product was so much purer than other ores that the same amount of flux used caused trouble in smelting. It was so good it was good for nothing in those days of old.
Here‘s how they assessed the mine:
We finally obtained the right to take the mine over at any time within six months, and we therefore began the work of examination, which every purchaser of mineral property should make most carefully. We ran lines across the hillside fifty feet apart, with cross-lines at distances of a hundred feet apart, and at each point of intersection we put a shaft down through the ore. I believe there were eighty such shafts in all and the ore was analyzed at every few feet of depth, so that before we paid over the hundred thousand dollars asked we knew exactly what there was of ore…. We trod upon sure ground with the chemist as our guide.
Chemistry, however, was still foreign to many people:
Our chemist, Mr. Prousser, was then sent to a Pennsylvania furnace among the hills…. A striking example of the awe inspired by the chemist in those days was that only with great difficulty could he obtain a man or a boy to assist him in the laboratory. He was suspected of illicit intercourse with the Powers of Evil when he undertook to tell by his suspicious-looking apparatus what a stone contained. I believe that at last we had to send him a man from our office at Pittsburgh.
One of Carnegie‘s major achievements was to bring the Bessemer steel-making process to America. This was a new way to achieve high-quality steel at a low price. Previously, the only options were low-strength wrought iron, brittle cast iron, or expensive steel in limited quantities. Bessemer broke this iron triangle.
Carnegie, already in the iron business, was paying attention and could see the future:
I had not failed to notice the growth of the Bessemer process. If this proved successful I knew that iron was destined to give place to steel; that the Iron Age would pass away and the Steel Age take its place.
As an example of the potential market for steel, Carnegie gives the example of iron rails, which wore out quickly under the pounding of heavy trains:
The question of a substitute for iron rails upon the Pennsylvania Railroad and other leading lines had become a very serious one. Upon certain curves at Pittsburgh, on the road connecting the Pennsylvania with the Fort Wayne, I had seen new iron rails placed every six weeks or two months.
Railroads and iron-makers went to great lengths to solve the problem:
Before the Bessemer process was known I had called President Thomson’s attention to the efforts of Mr. Dodds in England, who had carbonized the heads of iron rails with good results. I went to England and obtained control of the Dodds patents and recommended President Thomson to appropriate twenty thousand dollars for experiments at Pittsburgh, which he did. We built a furnace on our grounds at the upper mill and treated several hundred tons of rails for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and with remarkably good results as compared with iron rails. These were the first hard-headed rails used in America. We placed them on some of the sharpest curves and their superior service far more than compensated for the advance made by Mr. Thomson…. But there was nothing to be compared with the solid steel article which the Bessemer process produced.
Carnegie formed a company in 1873 to use the Bessemer process to make rails.
One of the surprising themes was that manufacturing concerns in the 1800s did very little accounting and thus had very little insight into their businesses, even whether they were profitable:
As I became acquainted with the manufacture of iron I was greatly surprised to find that the cost of each of the various processes was unknown. Inquiries made of the leading manufacturers of Pittsburgh proved this. It was a lump business, and until stock was taken and the books balanced at the end of the year, the manufacturers were in total ignorance of results. I heard of men who thought their business at the end of the year would show a loss and had found a profit, and vice-versa. I felt as if we were moles burrowing in the dark, and this to me was intolerable.
Just as Carnegie had brought the science of chemistry to his processes, so he brought “scientific management” to his operations:
I insisted upon such a system of weighing and accounting being introduced throughout our works as would enable us to know what our cost was for each process and especially what each man was doing, who saved material, who wasted it, and who produced the best results.
To arrive at this was a much more difficult task than one would imagine. Every manager in the mills was naturally against the new system. Years were required before an accurate system was obtained, but eventually, by the aid of many clerks and the introduction of weighing scales at various points in the mill, we began to know not only what every department was doing, but what each one of the many men working at the furnaces was doing, and thus to compare one with another.
This level of quantitative insight allowed Carnegie to make good choices about capital investments:
The Siemens Gas Furnace had been used to some extent in Great Britain for heating steel and iron, but it was supposed to be too expensive. I well remember the criticisms made by older heads among the Pittsburgh manufacturers about the extravagant expenditure we were making upon these new-fangled furnaces. But in the heating of great masses of material, almost half the waste could sometimes be saved by using the new furnaces. The expenditure would have been justified, even if it had been doubled.
Carnegie’s attitudes towards investing strike me as very odd. There was something very different about 19th-century investing that I don’t fully understand.
On the one hand, people were willing to take on significant amounts of personal debt in order to buy equity. In 1855, when Carnegie was a young man living with his mother, his boss tipped him off to a rare opportunity to buy railroad stock:
Mr. Scott asked me if I had five hundred dollars [over $15,000 today]. If so, he said he wished to make an investment for me. Five hundred cents was much nearer my capital. I certainly had not fifty dollars saved for investment, but I was not going to miss the chance of becoming financially connected with my leader and great man. So I said boldly I thought I could manage that sum. He then told me that there were ten shares of Adams Express stock that he could buy, which had belonged to a station agent, Mr. Reynolds, of Wilkinsburg.
How to pay for it? His mother mortgaged their house:
We had then paid five hundred dollars upon the house, and in some way she thought this might be pledged as security for a loan.
My mother took the steamer the next morning for East Liverpool, arriving at night, and through her brother there the money was secured. He was a justice of the peace, a well-known resident of that then small town, and had numerous sums in hand from farmers for investment. Our house was mortgaged and mother brought back the five hundred dollars which I handed over to Mr. Scott, who soon obtained for me the coveted ten shares in return.
It’s remarkable to me how random this all is, how reliant on personal relationships and chance connections. But even more so, it strikes me as financially reckless, the sort of thing you’d read about today on r/wallstreetbets. On the other hand, it turned out very well:
In those good old days monthly dividends were more plentiful than now and Adams Express paid a monthly dividend. One morning a white envelope was lying upon my desk… All it contained was a check for ten dollars upon the Gold Exchange Bank of New York…. “Eureka!” I cried. “Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
If Adams Express paid $10 a month on $500 of stock, that’s a 24% annual dividend yield, which is far better than any similar investment today, and presumably this easily covered the payments on the loan. No wonder Carnegie and his mother were so eager to get in on the deal.
Later, when Carnegie is still working for the railroad, there’s another chance connection, when the inventor of a sleeping car approaches him on the train:
He carried a small green bag in his hand. He said the brakeman had informed him I was connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He wished to show me the model of a car which he had invented for night traveling. He took a small model out of the bag, which showed a section of a sleeping-car.
This was the celebrated T. T. Woodruff, the inventor of that now indispensable adjunct of civilization—the sleeping-car. Its importance flashed upon me. I asked him if he would come to Altoona if I sent for him, and I promised to lay the matter before Mr. Scott at once upon my return.
Getting a deal with the railroad, the inventor invites Carnegie to become an investor in the new sleeping-car business:
After this Mr. Woodruff, greatly to my surprise, asked me if I would not join him in the new enterprise and offered me an eighth interest in the venture.
I promptly accepted his offer, trusting to be able to make payments somehow or other. The two cars were to be paid for by monthly installments after delivery. When the time came for making the first payment, my portion was two hundred and seventeen and a half dollars [well over $6,000 today].
(In this era, investors would often fund a business in regular installments, rather than all at once up front as is standard today.) Once again Carnegie decides to go into debt for this investment, and once again gets the loan through personal connections:
I boldly decided to apply to the local banker, Mr. Lloyd, for a loan of that sum. I explained the matter to him, and I remember that he put his great arm (he was six feet three or four) around me, saying:
“Why, of course I will lend it. You are all right, Andy.”
And here I made my first note, and actually got a banker to take it. A proud moment that in a young man’s career!
And once again, it works out anyway! 19th-century businesses seem to have gotten to profitability faster than today’s startups, because Carnegie writes: “The sleeping-cars were a great success and their monthly receipts paid the monthly installments [on the loan].”
Yet despite all of this willingness to invest on margin, Carnegie, like many others of his day, considered investing in the public stock market to be a reckless gamble. Later in his life, when he moves to New York, he remarks:
I had lived long enough in Pittsburgh to acquire the manufacturing, as distinguished from the speculative, spirit. My knowledge of affairs, derived from my position as telegraph operator, had enabled me to know the few Pittsburgh men or firms which then had dealings upon the New York Stock Exchange, and I watched their careers with deep interest. To me their operations seemed simply a species of gambling.
He complained that owning public stocks was distracting, and he warned people away from it, in a passage that sounds like today’s discussion of the psychological effects of social media:
I have adhered to the rule never to purchase what I did not pay for, and never to sell what I did not own. In those early days, however, I had several interests that were taken over in the course of business. They included some stocks and securities that were quoted on the New York Stock Exchange, and I found that when I opened my paper in the morning I was tempted to look first at the quotations of the stock market. As I had determined to sell all my interests in every outside concern and concentrate my attention upon our manufacturing concerns in Pittsburgh, I further resolved not even to own any stock that was bought and sold upon any stock exchange….
For the manufacturing man especially the rule would seem all-important. His mind must be kept calm and free if he is to decide wisely the problems which are continually coming before him. Nothing tells in the long run like good judgment, and no sound judgment can remain with the man whose mind is disturbed by the mercurial changes of the Stock Exchange. It places him under an influence akin to intoxication. What is not, he sees, and what he sees, is not. He cannot judge of relative values or get the true perspective of things. The molehill seems to him a mountain and the mountain a molehill, and he jumps at conclusions which he should arrive at by reason. His mind is upon the stock quotations and not upon the points that require calm thought. Speculation is a parasite feeding upon values, creating none.
Later he comments that investing in public markets degrades one’s integrity in business affairs:
A rule which we adopted and adhered to has given greater returns than one would believe possible, namely: always give the other party the benefit of the doubt. This, of course, does not apply to the speculative class. An entirely different atmosphere pervades that world. Men are only gamblers there. Stock gambling and honorable business are incompatible.
A reason to be wary of investments in those days was the lack of limited liability in many instances. Without it, even small investors uninvolved in management could be fully liable for the debts of the company. Carnegie tells this story:
Driving with Mr. Phipps from the mills one day we passed the National Trust Company office on Penn Street, Pittsburgh. I noticed the large gilt letters across the window, “Stockholders individually liable.” That very morning in looking over a statement of our affairs I had noticed twenty shares “National Trust Company” on the list of assets. I said to Harry:
“If this is the concern we own shares in, won’t you please sell them before you return to the office this afternoon?”
He saw no need for haste. It would be done in good time.
“No, Harry, oblige me by doing it instantly.”
He did so and had it transferred. Fortunate, indeed, was this, for in a short time the bank failed with an enormous deficit…. Times were panicky, and had we been individually liable for all the debts of the National Trust Company our credit would inevitably have been seriously imperiled. It was a narrow escape. And with only twenty shares (two thousand dollars’ worth of stock), taken to oblige friends who wished our name on their list of shareholders! The lesson was not lost. The sound rule in business is that you may give money freely when you have a surplus, but your name never—neither as endorser nor as member of a corporation with individual liability. A trifling investment of a few thousand dollars, a mere trifle—yes, but a trifle possessed of deadly explosive power.
All this was reinforced by Carnegie’s experience in the financial panic of 1873, when he “entered upon the most anxious period of my business life”:
All was going well when one morning in our summer cottage, in the Allegheny Mountains at Cresson, a telegram came announcing the failure of Jay Cooke & Co. Almost every hour after brought news of some fresh disaster. House after house failed. The question every morning was which would go next. Every failure depleted the resources of other concerns. Loss after loss ensued, until a total paralysis of business set in. Every weak spot was discovered and houses that otherwise would have been strong were borne down largely because our country lacked a proper banking system.
Carnegie often remarks on the ideals he picked up as a boy in Scotland. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with British history, but it was remarkable to me the streak of independence and anti-authoritarianism:
The denunciations of monarchical and aristocratic government, of privilege in all its forms, the grandeur of the republican system, the superiority of America, a land peopled by our own race, a home for freemen in which every citizen’s privilege was every man’s right—these were the exciting themes upon which I was nurtured. As a child I could have slain king, duke, or lord, and considered their deaths a service to the state and hence an heroic act.
Later, Carnegie tells a story of visiting an oil boom town in Pennsylvania in 1862. The town had been set up in a hurry, with too many people crowding in and not enough housing. He was impressed with the determination and resourcefulness of the oil wildcatters, who quickly threw up rough accommodations. But more, he was impressed with “the good humor which prevailed everywhere. It was a vast picnic, full of amusing incidents.” Flags with “strange mottoes” flew, such as one drilling crew flying the words “Hell or China.” Carnegie praises the American spirit:
The adaptability of the American was never better displayed than in this region. Order was soon evolved out of chaos. When we visited the place not long after we were serenaded by a brass band the players of which were made up of the new inhabitants along the creek. It would be safe to wager that a thousand Americans in a new land would organize themselves, establish schools, churches, newspapers, and brass bands—in short, provide themselves with all the appliances of civilization—and go ahead developing their country before an equal number of British would have discovered who among them was the highest in hereditary rank and had the best claims to leadership owing to his grandfather.
Finally, a number of quotes shed light on the general quality and challenges of life in the 1800s:
A few stories give a glimpse into the hardship of travel before railroads and steamships. For instance, soon after his family came to America:
My father was induced by emigration agents in New York to take the Erie Canal by way of Buffalo and Lake Erie to Cleveland, and thence down the canal to Beaver—a journey which then lasted three weeks, and is made to-day by rail in ten hours. There was no railway communication then with Pittsburgh, nor indeed with any western town…. Nothing comes amiss to youth, and I look back upon my three weeks as a passenger upon the canal-boat with unalloyed pleasure. All that was disagreeable in my experience has long since faded from recollection, excepting the night we were compelled to remain upon the wharf-boat at Beaver waiting for the steamboat to take us up the Ohio to Pittsburgh. This was our first introduction to the mosquito in all its ferocity. My mother suffered so severely that in the morning she could hardly see.
On his return from the aforementioned oil fields:
The weather had been fine and the roads quite passable during our journey thither, but rain had set in during our stay. We started back in our wagon, but before going far fell into difficulties. The road had become a mass of soft, tenacious mud and our wagon labored fearfully. The rain fell in torrents, and it soon became evident that we were in for a night of it. Mr. Coleman lay at full length on one side of the wagon, and Mr. Ritchie on the other, and I, being then very thin, weighing not much more than a hundred pounds, was nicely sandwiched between the two portly gentlemen. Every now and then the wagon proceeded a few feet heaving up and down in the most outrageous manner, and finally sticking fast. In this fashion we passed the night. There was in front a seat across the wagon, under which we got our heads, and in spite of our condition the night was spent in uproarious merriment.
Travel was also less reliable, owing to weaker infrastructure—for instance, wooden bridges. Part of what induced Carnegie to go into the iron business was the superiority of iron for bridge-building:
When at Altoona I had seen in the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s works the first small bridge built of iron. It proved a success. I saw that it would never do to depend further upon wooden bridges for permanent railway structures. An important bridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad had recently burned and the traffic had been obstructed for eight days. Iron was the thing.
In the 1800s, there weren’t many ways for an American to learn about fine art and classical culture. There weren’t many great museums (the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for instance, wasn’t established until the 1870s; much of its collection was donated by the great industrialists of that era, including over seven thousand pieces from J. P. Morgan). There was, of course, no Internet, no multimedia, and not even a lot of high-quality printed books (or libraries to borrow them from—Carnegie himself was later to establish many public libraries as a cornerstone of his philanthropy). There were no recordings of music until the end of the century, and no radio broadcasts.
So the only way to learn was to vacation to Europe. Carnegie was one of the few who could afford such a trip (and the time off in which to take it), and he wrote of its profound effect on him:
Up to this time I had known nothing of painting or sculpture, but it was not long before I could classify the works of the great painters. One may not at the time justly appreciate the advantage he is receiving from examining the great masterpieces, but upon his return to America he will find himself unconsciously rejecting what before seemed truly beautiful, and judging productions which come before him by a new standard. That which is truly great has so impressed itself upon him that what is false or pretentious proves no longer attractive.
My visit to Europe also gave me my first great treat in music. The Handel Anniversary was then being celebrated at the Crystal Palace in London, and I had never up to that time, nor have I often since, felt the power and majesty of music in such high degree. What I heard at the Crystal Palace and what I subsequently heard on the Continent in the cathedrals, and at the opera, certainly enlarged my appreciation of music. At Rome the Pope’s choir and the celebrations in the churches at Christmas and Easter furnished, as it were, a grand climax to the whole.
Later he took a more ambitious trip, around the world, which was even more transformative for him:
A new horizon was opened up to me by this voyage. It quite changed my intellectual outlook. Spencer and Darwin were then high in the zenith, and I had become deeply interested in their work. I began to view the various phases of human life from the standpoint of the evolutionist. In China I read Confucius; in India, Buddha and the sacred books of the Hindoos; among the Par-sees, in Bombay, I studied Zoroaster.
The outcome, as he describes it, was a much more cosmopolitan outlook, and a sense of the commonality of world cultures:
The result of my journey was to bring a certain mental peace. Where there had been chaos there was now order. My mind was at rest. I had a philosophy at last….
All the remnants of theology in which I had been born and bred, all the impressions that Swedenborg had made upon me, now ceased to influence me or to occupy my thoughts. I found that no nation had all the truth in the revelation it regards as divine, and no tribe is so low as to be left without some truth; that every people has had its great teacher; Buddha for one; Confucius for another; Zoroaster for a third; Christ for a fourth….
Every person who can, even at a sacrifice, make the voyage around the world should do so. All other travel compared to it seems incomplete, gives us merely vague impressions of parts of the whole. When the circle has been completed, you feel on your return that you have seen (of course only in the mass) all there is to be seen. The parts fit into one symmetrical whole and you see humanity wherever it is placed working out a destiny tending to one definite end.
The world traveler who gives careful study to the bibles of the various religions of the East will be well repaid. The conclusion reached will be that the inhabitants of each country consider their own religion the best of all. They rejoice that their lot has been cast where it is, and are disposed to pity the less fortunate condemned to live beyond their sacred limits.
Like many people of the pre–germ theory era, Carnegie suffered from infectious disease, and lost relatives to it. The fact that this was common, and had been for all of history, didn‘t prevent the tragedy from affecting him emotionally:
The year 1886 ended in deep gloom for me. My life as a happy careless young man, with every want looked after, was over. I was left alone in the world. My mother and brother passed away in November, within a few days of each other, while I lay in bed under a severe attack of typhoid fever, unable to move and, perhaps fortunately, unable to feel the full weight of the catastrophe, being myself face to face with death.
Air pollution in Pittsburgh was almost inconceivable:
Any accurate description of Pittsburgh at that time would be set down as a piece of the grossest exaggeration. The smoke permeated and penetrated everything. If you placed your hand on the balustrade of the stair it came away black; if you washed face and hands they were as dirty as ever in an hour. The soot gathered in the hair and irritated the skin, and for a time after our return from the mountain atmosphere of Altoona, life was more or less miserable.
Oil spills, now considered a disaster, were once routine. Again describing his visit to the oil fields:
In those early days all the arrangements were of the crudest character. When the oil was obtained it was run into flat-bottomed boats which leaked badly. Water ran into the boats and the oil overflowed into the river. The creek was dammed at various places, and upon a stipulated day and hour the dams were opened and upon the flood the oil boats floated to the Allegheny River, and thence to Pittsburgh.
In this way not only the creek, but the Allegheny River, became literally covered with oil. The loss involved in transportation to Pittsburgh was estimated at fully a third of the total quantity, and before the oil boats started it is safe to say that another third was lost by leakage.
Incidentally, in the early days of the industry, many people thought that oil would run out quickly. Carnegie, like many others, lost money on a scheme to take advantage of the peak that was believed to be imminent:
Mr. Coleman, ever ready at suggestion, proposed to make a lake of oil by excavating a pool sufficient to hold a hundred thousand barrels (the waste to be made good every day by running streams of oil into it), and to hold it for the not far distant day when, as we then expected, the oil supply would cease. This was promptly acted upon, but after losing many thousands of barrels waiting for the expected day (which has not yet arrived) we abandoned the reserve. Coleman predicted that when the supply stopped, oil would bring ten dollars a barrel and therefore we would have a million dollars worth in the lake. We did not think then of Nature’s storehouse below which still keeps on yielding many thousands of barrels per day without apparent exhaustion.
Overall I found the autobiography readable and enjoyable, although for my research purposes I lost interest after Carnegie‘s retirement (the last several chapters are all about his philanthropy and about politics). If you want more like the excerpts above, it‘s worth reading.
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