Is Tony Stark the Last Industrialist?

I’m sitting in the Rochester airport, reading about the new Iron Man movie. And I realized…almost every story identifies the hero as “industrialist Tony Stark.”   Stark not only is a billionaire who runs a mammoth industrial corporation that makes things, he personally builds things with his hands–armored suits, participle accelerators.

Is there anyone left in the U.S. that you would call an ‘industrialist’?


  1. CompEng says:

    I dunno, would you count Charles Koch?


  2. L.A.O. says:

    Frankly, I cannot think of anyone. The closest I can think of is a plumber in my area who invented a water saving dual flush toilet retrofit that he’s apparently rolling out nationally with some success. If that sounds facetious, it was meant to be, but it is also true.

    There are certainly other such small fries, but no big enterprise comes to mind that sprung from the hands of the founder since, perhaps, Paul Galvin (Motorola), Lear I think, Cessna and Piper — generally 1930’s and 40’s timeframe — and later Hewlett and Packard. To be fair, Steve Jobs (Apple) probably still tinkers with electronics when he can. Paul MacCready launched Aerovironment which isn’t exactly the heart of any industry but it did build upon his intense hands-on work. Bill Gates’ genius was in marketing rather than any personal creation, but if software engineering counts, the creators of Google and Craig’s List and eBay and some lessor tools would qualify if only they weren’t too distracted by money to keep programming. In that vein — maybe George Lucas? — Steven Spielberg?

  3. CompEng says:

    Too bad we can’t claim Mark Shuttleworth 🙂

  4. L.A.O. says:

    I want to note that I find no shortage of persistent and creative tinkerers in this nation, inventing custom solutions to meet their own needs and desires, shared with all comers — astoundingly efficient refrigeration, solar driven replacement for a plethora of household chargers, antenna improvements, unique tools machined in basements, parts ripped out of toys and deployed for wildly different practical or fun purposes, highly specialized web calculators, fishing lures, innovative telescope mounts, a winery without walls distributed across households. They may be movers and shakers in their own circles, but they are not titans.

    My best guess is that these people play in the unpatentable or small niche arena where nobody is going to bother offering them what they want, or else they cannot make the commitment to commercialize — inventions even remotely related to a technical person’s corporate employment are typically signed away in advance.

    I suspect that past titans of industry who continually generated useful products may have had an advantage that few win for themselves today — they were the boss, they controlled the money, and the product of their work was their own.

  5. mike shupp says:

    Williard Rockwell, Tex Avery, Charles Noyce, David Packard, Lee Iacocco…

    None of them current, of course. Stephen Jobs and Bill Gates might be viewed as their modern counterparts. Likely if the Iron Man character had been conceived during the 1990’s (rather than 1963) he would have been a software mogul rather than a machine designer.

  6. mike shupp says:

    And does it matter if there are no more true industrialists in the USA?

    For there are surely a hundred million libertarians who are not particularly
    inventive themselves but who know in their hearts that industrialists a la
    Hank Reardon still exist, who wish to defend these lions of free enterprise
    from the taxing ogres of White House and Congress, who yearn to befriend
    these folk on Facebook pages and share their simple twitterings at all hours.

    Only let me close my eyes long enough and I will be surrounded by a myriad
    of industrialists. Surely such belief is all we need in modern America!

  7. In a knowledge based economy? No! Products are patents, patents are ideas, ideas are knowledge. I don’t know where these scriptwriters got that from… A 1960s movie plot ?

  8. Mike Mandel, you neglect to mention what those things are that Stark’s mammoth industrial corporation makes: weapons, it’s an arms manufacturer. Don’t worry, you can comfort yourself that those are still mostly produced by American industrials. 😉 As shupp and tanen note, looking for an industrialist today is as silly as looking for a railroad or steel tycoon in the 1950s or a fur-trading/real-estate magnate in 1900, ie John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America in 1848. The one future-looking aspect of the Iron Man character is that it’s essentially about robotics, which will be the next tech revolution that people are already tinkering with.

    LAO, Charles Koch took over Koch Industries in 1967 when it had $250 million in yearly revenues and took it to $100 billion in yearly revenues today, so no, he’s not riding on anyone else.

    mike shupp, are you mocking libertarians and their fight against govt regulation with your last comment? Trust me, they’re not that concerned about industrialists as they know that’s of the past. They’re more worried about SarbOx, medical “reform,” and other regulations that affect everyone, particularly entrepreneurs of any kind. They don’t have to be particularly inventive to realize that shackling the Reardons is a dumb idea.

    • At the risk of not knowing for certain whether Charles Koch was ever personally involved in creating any of the company’s products and services, it seems that you might be subtly suggesting that we redefine this thought game to qualify anyone who has overseen a certain rate of growth in monetary value. How about Jack Welch? Sam Walton? Australia’s Robert Murdoch? George Soros? Warren Buffet? Jim Rodgers? Carl Icahn? T. Boone Pickens? CEO’s of MacDonald’s, Home Depot, Goldman Sachs, Wellpoint, Exxon, Pepsi, Japan’s Toyota? Not to diminish their accomplishments, I just thought it was a different game that we were playing.

      Granted, the word “industry” is a problem in that it tends to connote something that involves machinery and energy, rather than simply any economic sector. The point may be that we’re struggling to define post-industrial titans whose brilliance may be social (marketing) or organizational or financial etc. as though it is of no concern that civilization as we know it still depends upon those sectors that are industrial in the original sense.

      Maybe Andy Grove (Intel founder) was the last modern industrialist.

    • No, I’m not redefining the game, I’m just pointing out that Koch certainly didn’t just add incremental value to what his forebears did. As for what he brought to the mix technically, I don’t know- I wasn’t the one who suggested him- but he does have several engineering degrees, which is suggestive. As for the industrialist game, my point was that that game was silly and backward-looking to begin with. Civilization as we know it still depends on agriculture too, but it is 1% of our economy because it is well-understood and commoditized: the same has happened to the manufacturing industry which is why it’s not that important.

      • CompEng says:

        I’m not sure what Charles Koch has ever done technically by himself, but he has certainly built up successful industry and bought and fixed other industrial companies. So I don’t know about personal inventiveness, but at least in terms of competence in industrial management of physical things being built in the USA, he’s a pick.

  9. participle accelerators – like Keith Olberman?

  10. mike shupp says:

    Ajay —

    Three little words — “New Space entrepreneurs”. Google it, and rejoice!

  11. sunbomb says:

    Wouldn’t Dean Kamen (of Segway fame) be an industrialist? Too lazy to check if he is from the US.

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