Karl Wittgenstein (1847–1913)

Karl Wittgenstein was a person of restless energy who transformed himself into a brilliant but ruthless promoter of the iron and steel industry in Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary and now in Czechia).

He was born at Gohlis, a rapidly expanding industrial suburb of the city of Leipzig. His father ran a business selling wool. While he was still a child the family moved to Lower Austria and finally to Vienna. When he was 18 he ran away to the United States, where he spent two years working as a waiter, a musician, a language teacher and a canal boatman. When finally he returned to Vienna he studied engineering at the technical university but dropped out after a year.

His industrial career began when took a job as a technical draughtsman at the iron and steel rolling mills at Tepliz in Bohemia (Teplice, Czechia). At the age of 30 he was appointed as director of the mill, and within a few years he was the leading shareholder. He expanded the company’s interests quickly, taking over a mining company and opening a Bessemer steelworks. In 1886 he merged his business with the Prague iron company to create a regional iron and steel cartel. The following year, he bought the St Egydi iron and steel company in Lower Austria. He then brought together the scythe-making industry of Upper Styria as the Vereinigte Sensenwerke (United Scythe Factories). In 1889 he founded a private steelworks company named after his wife Leopoldine: the Poldi Hütte in Kladno, 25 km north-west of Prague, where he began to concentrate his production. In 1897 he became the majority shareholder in the Austrian Alpine mining company, Österreichisch-Alpine Montangesellschaft.

In all his operations he developed vertical integration, sought to fix prices through cartels and maximise efficiency, sometimes ruthlessly – he was called ‘the American in Austria’. In 1898 he was publicly criticised for his business practices and the Austrian government began an investigation. Wittgenstein responded by selling his industrial interests and withdrawing from business, aged 52. He toured the world and acted as a patron and collector in the fields of art, architecture and music – he was particularly known for his support for the Vienna Secession movement. Among his eight children were the famous Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the American pianist Paul Wittgenstein.