What is a captain of industry? Definition and meaning

A captain of industry is a leading business person who is well respected and admired in the world of business, among politicians, as well as members of the general public. Although the term refers to industry, it can include business leaders of virtually every sector. Senior managers of major corporations are sometimes referred to as captains of industry.

The term became popular in Great Britain and then the United States during the industrial revolution – 19th century – and referred to a business leader whose means of building up a personal fortune also contributed positively to the wealth and well-being of the nation in some way.

Their contribution may have included boosting productivity, providing lots of jobs, acts of philanthropy, or expansion of markets.

Captain of industry Famous AmericanThese American captains of industry helped their country – the United States – become a great nation. John D Rockefeller (oil), Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads and shipping), Thomas Edison (phonograph, motion picture camera, light bulb), Andrew Carnegie (steel), J P Morgan (Financier and banker) and Henry Ford (automobiles). (Images: biography.com)

According to the Financial Times Lexicon, a captain of industry is:

“Someone who runs or owns an important company and has a lot of influence.”

Captain of Industry vs. Robber Baron

A captain of industry contrasts with a robber baron, who is also a business leader, but amassed his or her personal fortune without contributing to the overall well-being of the nation. Often, robber barons have become rich at the expense of other people, for example, the poor.



Captains of industry are compassionate men and women who have used their wealth and influence in a positive way, making major contributions to their country, and even the world, to improve the lives of people.

The term was coined by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a Scottish philosopher, historian, teacher and satirical writer in his 1843 book – ‘Past and Present’ – in which he wrote about the impact of the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian era. The book combines medieval history with criticism of 19th-century British society.

Captain of Industry vs Robber BaronRobber barons stop at nothing to gain great financial benefit and wealth, even if that means their country and citizens suffer as a consequence. Captains of industry are viewed as true leaders of the society – they create business opportunities, jobs, wealth, and economic development for the whole nation.

Captains of industry – United States

At the end of the Civil War, America was viewed as a failing experiment of democracy; a country collapsing from within and at war with itself.

A mere fifty years later, it started evolving rapidly into a major power, and then became the world’s superpower.



American historians say that this landmark transition was partly thanks to a group of business-savvy, innovative young men: Henry Ford, J.P Morgan, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller.

They constructed a bold vision of a modern nation and transformed or were behind the creation of many of the country’s industries including automobiles, shipping, steel, rail, oil and finance. These men were America’s first captains of industry.

William Graham SumnerWilliam Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a classical liberal (libertarian) American social scientist, America’s first professor of sociology, once said: “Great captains of industry are as rare as great generals.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Steve Jobs – a captain of industry

Many people say that Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was a captain of industry. He co-founded Apple Inc., and through his company created thousands of jobs and brought many new products to market which have changed how we use computers and listen to music. He was a pioneer of the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, along with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Shortly after his death, Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ official biographer, described him as a “creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.”

Video – Henry Ford, Model T & the Assembly Line

Henry Ford’s Model T car allowed families to travel more than 15 miles from home in one day for the first time in their lives. It allowed people to get together with ease. Henry Ford, one of Amerca’s greatest captains of industry, also introduced the assembly line into industrial production.