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Captain of industry – definition and meaning

A captain of industry is a leading business person who people respect and admire. Although the term refers to industry, it can include business leaders of any sector. We sometimes refer to a senior manager of a major corporation as a captain of industry.

The term became popular in Great Britain and then the United States during the Industrial Revolution. They were business leaders whose means of building up a personal fortune also contributed to their country’s wealth.

In other words, captains of industry became rich but also helped make their country richer.

Their contribution may have included boosting productivity, providing lots of jobs, acts of philanthropy, and expansion of markets. Productivity means production per worker over a given period such as a day.

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. However, robber barons amassed their fortunes without contributing to the overall well-being of the nation. In fact, robber barons have become rich at the expense of other people, such as the poor.



Captains of industry are compassionate people who have positively used their wealth and influence. They have made major contributions to their country, and even the world, to improve the lives of people.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a Scottish philosopher coined the term in his 1843 book – ‘Past and Present.’ In the book, 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. They will even let their country suffer as long as they get richer. We see captains of industry as true leaders of the society. They create business opportunities, jobs, and wealth. Furthermore, they contribute to the economic development of the whole nation.

Captains of industry – United States

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

A mere fifty years later, America started evolving rapidly into a major power. It subsequently 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 were behind the creation of many of the country’s industries.

These talented business people created car factories, shipyards, steel mills, and railway infrastructure. They also expanded the country’s oil industry and set up major banks. These men were America’s first captains of industry.

William Graham SumnerWilliam Graham Sumner (1840-1910), a classical liberal 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. He also brought many new products to market which have changed how we use computers and listen to music.

Jobs 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 and the Model T

Henry Ford’s Model T car allowed families to travel more than 15 miles from home in one day. It was the first time anybody could do this. It allowed people to get together with ease.

Henry Ford, one of America’s greatest captains of industry, also introduced the assembly line into industrial production.