19. William Henry Vanderbilt, although inheriting a significant portion of his wealth, nonetheless earned more than $20 billion in today’s terms in just eight years
William Henry Vanderbilt (b. 1821) was an American businessman and the eldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Entering into the family businesses at the age of nineteen, William quickly rose through the railway ranks to become President of the Staten Island Railway in 1862. Becoming also President of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1877, he succeeded his father as the head of more than a dozen other major railway companies upon his death in the same year. Inheriting also one hundred million dollars from his father’s estate, William set about investing in an effort to surpass his father’s exorbitant peak wealth.
In this pursuit, William became the center of a noteworthy controversy in 1883. Asked whether he ran trains as a public service or a profit-making venture, William replied angrily: “the public be damned!” Clarifying his comments at a later date, William more calmly contended “railroads are not run for the public benefit, but to pay. Incidentally, we may benefit humanity, but the aim is to earn a dividend.” Dying only eight years after his father in 1885, in that time William had succeeded in doubling his father’s inheritance, with the projected value of his estate at this time to be roughly $52,000,000,000 today.
18. Responsible for the survival of the United States during the War of 1812, Stephen Girard – the wealthiest man in America – risked his fortune to aid the federal government in the fight against the British.
Stephen Girard, born 1750 as Ãtienne Girard, was a naturalized American banker who emigrated from France at the age of 26. The son of a sea captain, Girard established himself professionally as a competent trader in Philadelphia. Loyal to his new home city, Girard refused to abandon Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and even opened his home as a makeshift hospital for the poor. Opening the “Bank of Girard” in 1812 after the closure of the First Bank of the United States, employing many of the same staff and using the same office space, Girard became instrumental to America’s survival in the War of 1812.
Starved of capital, the United States, low on credit, was almost bankrupt. Just days from being forced to capitulate due to a lack of funds, Girard, by then the richest man in America, selflessly placed his considerable fortune at the disposal of the federal government. Underwriting ninety-five percent of the loans made on behalf of the government, Girard enabled the United States to continue borrowing to carry on the conflict. Dying in 1830 after a carriage accident, Girard remained the wealthiest person in America with an estimated total fortune in excess of $120 billion in today’s value.
17. The father of Henry IV and founder of the House of Lancaster, John of Gaunt leveraged his princely birth to become one of the wealthiest men in the world.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (b. 1340) was the third adult son of Edward III, King of England. Founder of the House of Lancaster, the descendants of which would claim the throne both before and after the War of the Roses, John spent much of his early life in France and Spain contesting the Hundred Years’ War. Briefly attempting to claim the throne of Castile via his second wife, Constance, John became a leading figure of his father’s government as those around him fell to illness. Becoming a mediating figure during the reign of the young Richard II, John sought to hold the nation together in the face of rebellion.
Due to his princely birth, as well as strategic marriages, John enjoyed significant land grants. Regarded as one of the wealthiest men of his era, John owned land in every county of England as well as reigning as Duke of Aquitaine. Although his lands were confiscated upon his death in 1399 due to the treasons of his son, Henry Bolingbroke, his progeny would return from exile to depose Richard and reclaim the lost possessions as Henry IV. Although difficult to calculate the precise worth of the Lancastrian patriarch, it has been estimated the value of his estate would equate to $110,000,000,000 today.
16. Despite his father forfeiting his properties through treason, Richard FitzAlan successfully recovered his due lands and more to leave his own children the equivalent of more than $100 billion.
Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel and 8th Earl of Surrey (b. 1306) was an English nobleman during the reign of Edward III. The eldest son of Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, who was executed for treason in 1326, Richard successfully regained his father’s lands and titles after years of political wranglings. Becoming a close advisor and supporter of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, Richard spent much of his prime fighting in the Second Wars of Scottish Independence and in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Becoming a highly distinguished and successful admiral, Richard was vastly rewarded for his services.
15. The “most corrupt official in Chinese history”, Heshen amassed a personal empire valued at over $100 billion over a twenty-four-year career as an imperial minister.
Heshen (b. 1750) was a member of the Manchu Niohuru clan and a favored official of the Qianlong Emperor during the Qing dynasty of Imperial China. Initially assigned as a bodyguard at the gates to the Forbidden City in 1772, within a year Heshen had miraculously risen to become vice-president of the Ministry of Revenue. By the end of 1773, Heshen had also been appointed a Grand Councillor – an important policy-making collective – and a minister of the Imperial Household Department. By the age of just twenty-seven, Heshen received the honor of riding a horse within the Forbidden City: a privilege traditionally reserved for elderly officials of the highest rank.
Rising to Minister of Revenue, thus controlling the entire empire’s finances, Heshen successfully attached himself to the Qianlong Emperor through marriage, wedding his son to the emperor’s favorite daughter. With this greater impunity, Heshen became increasingly blatant in his corrupt practices, openly extorting funds and raising and siphoning taxes at whim. However, upon the abdication of the Qianlong Emperor in 1796, Heshen’s crimes were exposed. Ordered to commit suicide, Heshen hung himself to spare his family ritualistic mass execution. Upon the seizure of his properties, it was estimated that his estate would be valued today at $132,000,000,000.
14. Believed to have been the first multi-millionaire in the United States, John Jacob Astor saw the potential of New York City and bought up large tracts of land on Manhattan Island.
John Jacob Astor, born in 1763 as Johann Jakob Astor, was a German-American businessman and real estate mogul. Born near Heidelberg, Astor emigrated to London at the age of sixteen before departing England for New York City following the end of the American Revolution five years later. Intending to open a butcher’s shop, after encountering a fur trader whilst sailing to America Astor elected to change profession. Purchasing raw hides, Astor prepared and resold his goods for an enormous profit in London. Opening his own store by the late-1780s, Astor, taking advantage of the Jay Treaty which opened up the Great Lakes region, had earned a colossal quarter of a million dollars by the turn of the century.
Expanding his commodities, including entering the opium business, Astor was the chief beneficiary of the protectionist tariffs imposed in 1817 banning foreign fur traders. Ruthlessly establishing a quasi-monopoly, Astor increasingly reinvested his earnings into New York real estate. Starting in 1799, by the 1830s Astor, predicting the future of the city, owned significant portions of land in Manhattan. Leasing it to others, thus exposing himself to less risk, Astor died in 1848 as the wealthiest man in the United States. His estate at this time, estimated at twenty million dollars, would have been equivalent to $138 billion as of 2018.
13. One of the few documented individuals to fight for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, William de Warenne amassed lands worth almost $150,000,000,000
William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, Low of Lewes, Seigneur to Varennes, was a Norman nobleman and supporter of William the Conqueror. Although Williams’ genealogy and birth are unclear, it has been suggested that he was a descendant of Richard I of Rouen. A second son, and thus not likely to inherit his family’s small estate, William fervently supported Duke William II of Normandy during his early reign, being rewarded with confiscated lands including the Castle of Mortimer. Fighting at the Battle of Hastings in support of the Duke of Normandy’s claim to the throne of England, victory in the conflict saw William’s holdings expand considerably.
Granted lands in at least thirteen counties of England in reward for his loyal service and companionship to the new monarch, the Domesday Book records William, later the Earl of Surrey, as one of the foremost landowners in the entire country. Continuing to fight to secure his lord’s crown, William saw further battle at the Isle of Ely before being mortally wounded during the First Siege of Pevensey Castle in 1088. Modern projections value the adjusted wealth of the Norman nobleman’s estates to range between one hundred and forty and one hundred and fifty billion dollars.
12. The longest-reigning monarch of the Byzantine Empire, Basil II accrued an incalculable fortune through successful wars and trading relations with his European partners.
Basil II, also known as the Bulgar Slayer, reigned as the Byzantine Emperor from 976 until his death in 1025. The son of Emperor Romanos II, the early years of Basil’s prolonged reign were plagued by civil war and political intrigue. Finally instilling order and peace in 989, Basil focused his attentions on the expansion of the eastern frontier of his empire. Subjugating the Bulgarian Empire, the militaristic and aggressive emperor also launched wars against the Fatimid Caliphate and the Khazar Khaganate, winning large parts of Crimea and Georgia. Despite these warlike propensities, Basil also demonstrated an effective administrative capacity.
Leading the Christianization of the Kievan Rus’, including wedding his sister to Vladimir I of Kiev, Basil instituted the famed Varangian Guard as his personal elite corps. Reforming the Byzantine Empire to restrict the power of the noble houses, Basil amassed an enormous royal treasury to support his endeavors. Leaving the Byzantine Empire at its largest and strongest in centuries, Basil personally negotiated a treaty with the Doge of Venice to ensure the empire’s financial stability and future. Upon his death, Basil’s annual revenue was estimated to surpass 200,000 pounds of gold and his personal wealth equated to $169,000,000,000.
11. Another companion of William the Conqueror, Alan Rufus also exploited the spoils of the Norman Conquest to become one of the wealthiest men of Europe with an estate worth the equivalent of almost $200 billion.
Alan Rufus, 1st Lord of Richmond, was a companion of Duke William II of Normandy, thought to have been his uncle, and a leading supporter of the latter’s claim to the throne of England in 1066. Enjoying property in Normandy, it is believed Alan was present during the Battle of Hastings and that his forces were instrumental in driving the English from the field. Claiming lands in Cambridgeshire for his own, much of Alan’s early acquisitions in England are believed to have been seized from the late King Harold’s widow, Edith the Fair. Successfully putting down a rebellion in Northumberland in 1069, Alan was awarded a vast tract of land in North Yorkshire.
Counted among the leading lords in the Domesday Survey, by 1086 Alan had become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England, behind only King William himself and Robert, Count of Mortain in the number of holdings. Enjoying an annual income of Â£1,200, Alan ferociously defended his relative during the Rebellion of 1088, earning an even greater expansion of his lands and titles. Dying suddenly in 1093 without children, his vast fortune passed to his brothers, estimated to be valued today at one hundred and ninety-five billion dollars.
10. Revolutionizing perceptions and the production of automobiles, Henry Ford became one of the wealthiest men in American history with a projected value of $200 billion.
Henry Ford (b. 1863) was an American businessman and founder of the Ford Motor Company. Investing in the concept of the assembly line, Ford sought to transform automobiles from an exclusive item to a commonplace object of middle-class American life. His business philosophy – Fordism – became the gold standard for economic modeling for decades, melding the mass production of inexpensive goods with high wages for workers to maximize productivity. Creating his eponymous company in 1903, following a two-year unsuccessful stint with the Henry Ford Company, Ford sought to ensure his new venture remained under close family control.
Fanatically lowering costs to increase profits, the launch of the Model T in 1908 signaled a new era of affordable automobiles. Increasing the output of the Ford Motor Company from 18,000 cars in 1909 to more than one million by 1920, Ford elevated both himself and his company into a global brand and revolutionized an industry. However, less admirably Ford was an unrepentant anti-Semite, funding printing of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and authoring The International Jew, the latter of which profoundly influenced the political philosophy of Adolf Hitler. Dying in 1947, Ford’s net worth is projected to have been worth the equivalent of two hundred billion dollars today.
9. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the source of the Vanderbilt family fortune, created a near-total monopoly over rail transport in the Eastern United States and earning the equivalent of $215 billion in the process.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (b. 1794) was an American businessman best known for founding the New York Central Railroad. Nicknamed “The Commodore” in later life, Vanderbilt was born in Staten Island to a family of moderate means. Starting his own ferry service at the age of sixteen, Vanderbilt carried freight and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Expanding his operations across the surrounding regions, Vanderbilt ruthlessly absorbed his competitors. Despite this, Vanderbilt successfully used populist language to appear amiable, calling his Hudson River Steamboat Association – a monopoly between New York City and Albany – “The People’s Line”.
Forcibly targeting the stocks of company’s he sought to acquire, Vanderbilt gradually built a colossal empire. Controlling more than a dozen railroad companies spanning the Eastern United States, Vanderbilt controlled a near-monopoly over trains and freight, permitting him to amass a monumental personal fortune. Leaving virtually all of his more than one hundred million dollar estate to his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, offering just $500,000 to his daughters and $200,000 to his youngest son, Cornelius’ estate would today have been valued at approximately $215,000,000,000.
8. William the Conqueror, fighting to claim and hold lands and titles his whole life, seized incalculable wealth via his victories in battle, amassing an almost $215 billion fortune.
William I, also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, was the first Norman King of England, reigning from 1066 until his death in 1087. Born 1028, the son of the unmarried Robert I of Normandy, William inherited his father’s dukedom at the age of just seven. Facing political intrigue and attempts to usurp his lands and title, the young William was unable to successfully fight back until 1047. Gradually quashing pockets of resistance to his authority, it would take until 1060 for William to exert full control over Normandy. Within just two years, however, William would have already conquered the neighboring county of Maine.
Increasingly vying for the throne of England in the 1050s, upon the childless death of his first cousin once removed, King Edward the Confessor, in January 1066, William declared himself the successor. Claiming Edward has promised him the crown, and that Harold had pledged to support him, William invaded England in September 1066 to seize his due. Defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William was crowned on Christmas Day. Winning vast lands and a colossal personal fortune through his staggering conquests, William accumulated an estate with a projected value of $228,000,000,000 today.
7. Using a $50 million diamond as a paperweight, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Osman Ali Khan reached a peak wealth of $230,000,000,000 before forfeiting 97% of his fortune after the loss of his crown in 1948.
Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, Asaf Jah VII, born Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur in 1886, was the last Nizam of Hyderabad and Berar, reigning from 1911 until the annexation of his state by India in 1948. Ruling over the state of Hyderabad, the largest of the pre-independence princely states of British India, despite only presiding over an area the size of the United Kingdom Osman oversaw a vastly wealthy enterprise. With Hyderabad serving as the only supplier of diamonds for the global market during the 18th century, Osman inherited vast wealth from his family, being described in 1937 as the “world’s richest man” on the cover of TIME magazine.
With a jewelry collection, including hundreds of articles, reputedly worth more than one billion dollars, Osman flaunted his wealth and excess. Offering a wedding gift to the future Queen Elizabeth, Osman presented a diamond tiara and necklace – the Nizam of Hyderabad necklace – valued today at more than ten million dollars. Invaded in 1948, a year after Indian independence, Osman was forced to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he became the wealthiest individual in the Arab nation. Although abandoning the preponderance of his wealth, carrying only the equivalent of forty billion dollars, at his peak Osman was worth more than two hundred and thirty billion.
6. Jakob Fugger, commonly known as “the Rich” due to his tremendous wealth, became the silent financial backer of several European monarchs, investing his profits wisely to accumulate a fortune nearing $300 billion in equivalent value.
Jakob Fugger (b. 1459) was a German banker and investor who exploded to prominence during the late 15th century. The son of Jakob Fugger the Elder, Jakob II was the tenth child of his successful merchant father, who had established himself in the Italian textiles trade. Building off of the foundational work of his elder brothers, Ulrich and Georg, who founded manufactories in Venice and Nuremberg, by the age of fourteen Jakob was intimately involved in the family business. Expanding their operations to include banking, providing credit to the Imperial House of Habsburg as well as the Papal Curia, Jakob reinvested proceeds into mining ventures in Bohemia and Hungary.
Becoming the de facto head of the Fugger business by 1487, the family soon established a European monopoly over copper. Financing the rise of Maximilian I to the Holy Roman Throne, as well as supporting Charles V, Jakob hovered behind the scenes of European political machinations for decades. Profiting the whole time, by 1511 his personal wealth exceeded two percent of Europe’s GDP. Upon his death in 1525, Jakob bequeathed more than two million guilders – a Dutch gold coin – to his nephew, with his estate valued at approximately $280,000,000,000 in today’s terms.
5. The last of the Russian monarchy, presiding over the fall of the Romanov dynasty, Nicholas II nevertheless accrued a peak personal fortune of approximately $300,000,000,000.
Nicholas II, also known as Nicholas the Bloody, was the last Emperor of Russia, reigning from 1894 until his forced abdication in 1917. Born in 1868, his father, Alexander III, failed to prepare his son for the throne, believing that he had decades longer to introduce Nicholas to governing. Inexpert and untrained, the reign of Nicholas II was fraught with political and military turmoil. Losing the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, during which the Russian Baltic Fleet was embarrassingly destroyed, Nicholas was forced to violently suppress the 1905 Russian Revolution. Entering World War One, Russia’s performance remained dire.
Losing an estimated 3.3 million Russian soldiers, Nicholas was held personally responsible. After the February Revolution of 1917, Nicholas was compelled to abdicate on behalf of the entire House of Romanov and was taken into custody. Following the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power, the imprisoned royal family were executed in July 1918. Despite an ignoble end, Nicholas II, through his capacity as Emperor of All Russia, amassed a vast personal wealth prior to his downfall. Modern estimates place his fortune in 1916 in the vicinity of three hundred billion in 2018 terms.
4. Born into an impoverished Scottish family, Andrew Carnegie rose to become the wealthiest man in America with an equivalent net worth of $375 billion.
Andrew Carnegie (b. 1835) was a Scottish-American industrialist and business magnate, remembered in particular for leading the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century. Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, into a working-class weaving family, at the age of thirteen Carnegie emigrated to the United States with his parents out of desperation due to starvation and economic depression. Joining his father at work in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the pair worked twelve hours per day, six days per week, earning less than two dollars per week each. Employed as a telegraph operator by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1853, Carnegie’s rapid rise soon followed.
Becoming superintendent of the Western Division by 1858, Carnegie invested nearly all of his earnings into the booming railways, in so doing multiplying his stake many times over. By the 1860s, Carnegie had earned enough through smart speculative investments, including in oil farms, to enter the ironworks industry. His greatest accomplishment, in 1892 Carnegie founded his eponymous steel company, selling it just nine years later for over three hundred million dollars. Donating vast sums to charity, founding thousands of local libraries, Carnegie’s peak wealth, during which time he was briefly the wealthiest man in America, reached the equivalent of $375,000,000,000.
3. The richest person in modern history, John D. Rockefeller Sr. was America’s first billionaire with an adjusted-for-inflation net worth exceeding $400 billion.
John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (b. 1839) was an American oil tycoon and industrialist during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Born into an unremarkable family, John, along with his brother William and friend Samuel Andrews, founded Rockefeller & Andrews in their early 20s to attempt to break into the oil refining business. Growing and expanding respectably, in 1870 Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company. Profiting from the soaring costs of gasoline, Standard Oil, through highly unsavory and ruthless business strategies, successfully created a virtual monopoly over the American oil industry.
Controlling at its peak more than ninety percent of all oil in the United States, Standard Oil was ordered dismantled into thirty-four separate components by the Supreme Court in 1911 due to anti-trust violations. Although opening up the oil industry, this separation financially benefited Rockefeller, whose personal shares in the new spin-off companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, exploded in value. Becoming the wealthiest man in America and the first billionaire in the nation’s history, Rockefeller’s peak net worth came just two years later in 1913, valued at $409,000,000,000 when adjusted for inflation.
2. Musa I of the Mali Empire – the leading producer of gold – became so inordinately wealthy that during a pilgrimage to Mecca he donated more than 24 tons of gold to the poor without care.
Musa I, also known as Mansa Musa, was the tenth Sultan of the Mali Empire, reigning from 1312 until his death in 1337. Ascending to the throne due to the customs of the Sultanate, Musa, despite not being the son of his predecessor, Abubakari Keita II, was appointed deputy in his absence during a royal expedition to explore the Atlantic Ocean. Never returning, with Abubakari believed to have been lost at sea, the thirty-two-year-old Musa was crowned in his place. Inheriting the empire, among the many titles bestowed on Musa was Lord of the Mines of Wangara, with his new domain the largest producer of gold in the world.
Displaying his wealth during a flamboyant pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, Musa journeyed to the holy city with 12,000 slaves each carrying almost two kilograms of gold bars and eighty camels carrying each three hundred pounds of gold dust. Dispersing this incalculable wealth to the poor along the route, Musa ordered and financed the construction of a new mosque upon his location each Friday during his travels. Possibly the wealthiest individual to have ever lived, Musa’s projected wealth, although difficult to calculate, is estimated to have been equivalent to around $415,000,000,000 today.
1. Potentially the wealthiest man in history and the first trillionaire, according to biblical sources, King Solomon amassed a gigantic fortune during his 39-year reign as King of Israel.
Solomon, also known as Jedidiah, is a biblical King of Israel believed to have reigned between 970 and 931 BCE. The son of King David, and the third king of the United Monarchy, Solomon, per his father’s instructions, initiated his reign at the age of fifteen with a political purge to consolidate his position. Expanding his military strength, Solomon is credited with the creation of favorable trade relations with neighboring nations, in particular, the Phoenicians. Following his death, the United Monarchy quickly dissipated, with the Israelites splitting between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.
Regarded as the wealthiest of the Israelite kings that appear in the Bible, multiple stories make reference to the vast fortune of Solomon. Using this wealth to build the First Temple, treasure hunters have spent centuries attempting to relocate his horde, believed to have been lost during the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. According to the Book of Kings, Solomon received as much as twenty-five tons of gold in tribute in each of his thirty-nine years in power, in addition to general taxation. Using modern projections, historians have calculated that, if such claims are indeed true, Solomon would have enjoyed an equivalent net worth of $2,200,000,000,000.
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