Each year, Forbes releases its ranking of the world’s richest people. And each year, some smart aleck chimes in with the news that if you adjust for inflation, Bill Gates wouldn’t even be close to the number one richest person in history.
Not only is that true, but Gates would barely even crack the top ten. In fact, five of the top six richest people in history (when figures are adjusted for inflation) all made their fortunes well over a century ago.
It’s worth asking why, throughout all of history, a hugely disproportionate majority of the all-time wealthiest people were white, American males born between 1820 and 1870 and working as industrialists in the northeastern U.S. — but that’s a larger, thornier topic for another time.
For now, here’s the list — adjusted for inflation and excluding despots and those who lived so long ago that their wealth can’t be verified –itself:
Richard Mellon (1858-1933)
This Pittsburgh-based banker and industrialist got his start in the Mellon Bank, which was founded by his father and which he later led along with his brother, Andrew (stay tuned for more on him).
Via the bank’s funds, Mellon bolstered his fortune with investments in coal, aluminum, and more.
Stephen Girard (1750-1831)
French by birth, and later a naturalized American, Stephen Girard made his fortune after founding his own bank in Philadelphia, in 1812 (nearly 150 years later, that bank actually merged with Mellon Bank). And his timing couldn’t have been better. His bank almost solely kept the U.S. afloat during the War of 1812.
By the time he died in 1831, he was the richest person in the U.S. — and the vast majority of that fortune went to charity.
Bill Gates (1955-)
In holding the top spot on the annual Forbes list 17 out of the past 22 years, Bill Gates has long been the poster boy for inconceivably vast wealth.
Yet, the Microsoft founder’s peak fortune of $144 billion (which came back in 1999) is only enough to place him on the outer fringes of the top ten richest people in history.
John Jacob Astor (1763-1848)
The German-born Astor worked in a musical instruments factory before coming to New York to work as a butcher. However, a chance meeting on the boat across the Atlantic launched him into the fur trade, in which he made an enormous amount of money.
By the early 1800s, with the fur trade on the decline, Astor briefly got involved in the opium trade before wildly expanding his already great fortune with a bevy of well-timed investments in Manhattan real estate.
From the New York Public Library (which he funded) to the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel (named for him), Astor’s influence can be felt all over Manhattan to this day.
Andrew Mellon (1855-1937)
Like his younger brother, Richard (number 10 on this list), Andrew Mellon made his money in the family banking firm, including its interests in oil, steel, coal, and more.
After solidifying his huge fortune, Mellon served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932, during which time he was instrumental in negotiating the international debt resulting from World War I and in determining U.S. tax policy.
With the onset of the Great Depression, however, the conservative Mellon was ousted from his post. Nevertheless, his copious philanthropic gifts, including Carnegie Mellon University, are still known across the country.
Henry Ford (1863-1947)
Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he did make it practical and affordable for the average consumer.
And he didn’t invent the assembly line, but he did fold it into an economic model that informed mass production for much of the 20th century and helped make the United States the richest country on Earth.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
New York native Cornelius Vanderbilt made significant money in steamships before venturing into the industry that made him the fourth richest person in history: railroads.
Ultimately, unlike most of the others on this list, Vanderbilt engaged in very little philanthropy, and instead left 95 percent to one of his 13 children, William, and William’s four children.
Jakob Fugger (1459-1525)
Easily the oldest entrant on this list, Jakob Fugger is relatively unique among the super-wealthy of the pre-Industrial Revolution period in that he a.) earned his wealth not as a head of state but as a businessman, and b.) had a fortune that was documented with reasonable accuracy and can now actually be compared to those who came centuries after him.
Born in present-day Germany into a family made wealthy in the textile trade, Fugger built upon his considerable inherited wealth with an international mining operation that was nearly monopolistic in its dominance across Europe and Asia.
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
Born into a poor family in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S., Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the burgeoning steel industry.
And although that fortune was large enough to make him the second richest person in history, what truly separates Carnegie from the pack and what defines his legacy to this day is his incredible philanthropy.
All told, he gave away about 90 percent of his fortune (nearly $80 billion, when adjusted for inflation) to various charitable causes. His famous 1889 article “The Gospel of Wealth” is widely credited with informing the wave of philanthropy among America’s super-wealthy in the ensuing years. In that article, he wrote “The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.”
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
Today, with six of the world’s top ten largest companies all in the petroleum business, we’ve all generally accepted that the oil industry is among the most profitable on Earth.
However, in the 1860s, when New York-born John D. Rockefeller was building his first refineries, the oil boom hadn’t yet happened. But then it did. Rockefeller was in the right place at the right time. Worldwide demand went through the roof and Rockefeller controlled, at his peak, over 90 percent of all the oil in the U.S.
The U.S. government eventually dismantled that monopoly, but by then Rockefeller had retired and his wealth was secure. In those later years, he gave away large chunks of what was very likely the largest fortune in history.