In the late 19th century a captain of industry was a business leader whose means of amassing a personal fortune contributed positively to the country in some way.
This may have been through increased productivity, expansion of markets, providing more jobs, or acts of philanthropy. This characterization contrasts with that of the robber baron, a business leader using political means to achieve personal ends.
Some 19th-century industrialists who were called "captains of industry" overlap with those called "robber barons". These include people such as J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller. The term was coined by Thomas Carlyle in his 1843 book, Past and Present.
The education division of the National Endowment for the Humanities has prepared a lesson plan for schools asking whether "robber baron" or "captain of industry" is the better terminology. They state:
In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world's greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.