Who are the Most Famous Captains of Industry?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A captain of industry is an extremely successful entrepreneur who dedicates some part of his or her wealth to charitable pursuits. The term came into common usage during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when business barons gained tremendous power and wealth as a result of the booming new industries. There have been many famous captains of industry throughout history, each dedicated to improving conditions and communities by applying wealth and business acumen to noble causes. Some of the most famous include Andrew Carnegie, Invar Kamprad, and Bill Gates.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates started a foundation supporting education and health care.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates started a foundation supporting education and health care.

Andrew Carnegie is frequently cited as one of the first great captains of industry in the Industrial era. The child of Scottish immigrants and boasting little education, he rose through the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, becoming primarily responsible for the Pittsburgh steel industry. Despite his meteoric success, Carnegie warned others frequently of the dangers of wealth, and devoted much of his money toward philanthropy. He became instrumental in the creation of public libraries throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, while also giving generously to universities, scientific laboratories, and orchestras.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie is forever linked with the city of Pittsburgh.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie is forever linked with the city of Pittsburgh.

The modern era has no shortage of business leaders. Invar Kamprad, a man dedicated to the principles of simplicity and economy, turned these passions into gold with the founding of the IKEA® furniture chain in the 1940s. Now considered one of the richest people of the early 21st century, Kamprad is famous for driving a decades-old car and turning most of his profits over to his charitable foundation, one of the largest in the world.

In the technological revolution of the late 20th century, Bill Gates rose to the forefront of business as the owner of Microsoft®. For many years, he ranked as the wealthiest person in the world thanks to the booming success and growth of computer technology. Retired from active work in 2006, Gates turned his focus to his immense charitable foundation. In the tradition of Carnegie, the foundation actively supports education and the creation of free public libraries. Additionally, Gates' foundation donates millions to improving global health care, creating and researching financial opportunities in poverty-stricken areas, and the development of new agricultural technology.

Captains of industry are quite distinct from business leaders solely interested in the possession of personal wealth. Unlike robber barons, they actively pursue the betterment of society through their wealth. While some maintain lavish personal lifestyles, the defining characteristic of these entrepreneurs is a dedication to the improvement of the world.

Andrew Carnegie became one of the richest men of the 19th century.
Andrew Carnegie became one of the richest men of the 19th century.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I know that there are guys like Carnegie, Hearst, Gates, and Rockefeller that are considered captains of industry, but who else is on their level of wealth and success?

The only name that I can think of that has not been mentioned is Howard Hughes. Besides him I cannot really think of any other captains of industry.

I have a paper for a class comparing captains of industry and I need a couple more, preferably between the times of Gates and Hughes, simply because of the time gap between the two.

@izzy78 - I would have to say that John D. Rockefeller is a great example of someone that could be considered both.

He did drive his competitors out of business and did do some unscrupulous things that would be considered illegal today, all in the name of enhancing his business, but he also gave back a lot when he was older.

Maybe he had a change of heart and was trying to redeem himself, or maybe this was his plan all along and realized that if he made so much he could give back more to those who need it and better society.

Despite the labeling of robber baron and captain of industry I really think that it does not really matter what they give back, but how they enhance their industry and how high they rise.

Although a person can amass a great person being a robber baron, they can almost never be on the same level as Carnegie or Hearst and they advanced their industry so far with their success that they should be considered captains of industry, despite what negatives they may have done.

It seems like someone could be seen as both a captain of industry and a robber baron, depending on what they've done recently. For instance, if a robber baron suddenly donates a new wing to a hospital, all of the sudden people start calling him a captain of industry instead. It seems like the whole thing is really up to how people see him at a given moment.

I have read very much about captains of industry and robber barons and I can say that there is a distinct difference between the two, but it is a matter of opinion exactly how one categorizes the person.

Let us take Andrew Carnegie for instance. After he made his fortune he sought to help society, by creating hundreds of libraries across the country, many in small rural towns, that allowed for the betterment of society.

Bill Gates is another instance as he has already made his fortune and has gone out of his way to try and help the world.

One person that I would classify as a robber baron would be William Randolph Hearst, simply because of the unethical business tactics he used to get to where he did, as well as the fact he was not afraid to crush his competition any way possible. He also did this in such a way that he was more concerned with his fortune and did not go the route Carnegie or Gates did and tried to give back to society.


Honestly, I think Bill Gates and his foundation is one of the best things that's ever happened to the world.

Say what you like about him, the man was never interested in money for its own sake.

And if he can start trying to solve the world's problems, seeing it as something to be figured out, and have enough money to really throw at the solutions, quite a few things will really start happening.

There are several diseases that are close to being wiped out, just because of that foundation.

And the best thing is that they are concentrating on malaria now. I'm hoping a cure isn't far away.


My father used to tell us a story about one of our great great grandfathers, who was supposedly at one point the richest man in Texas (I have no idea if this story, or even the richest man part is true).

He came to the States a poor immigrant, and tried to get a job as a clerk at a store. When it came to signing the contract, he signed with an X and the man hiring him demanded, don't you even know how to read? And refused to hire him.

So, instead, in desperation, my grandfather managed to scrape together a few coins, bought some apples, and sold them. Then bought some more fruit, and sold it. Then he managed to save enough for a cart, and eventually his own store.

After a few years he had lots of stores, and could eventually be called one of the captains of the industry. He was giving a check to charity in fact, when one of the journalists noticed he signed it with an X.

"My goodness," he said. "You've done all this and you don't know how to read? Where would you be today if you'd had an education!"

"Well," my grandfather said. "I'd be a clerk in a store."

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