The wealthiest people alive today vs the richest people in history

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is worth $117 billion. L’Oréal SA heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the richest woman, has $54 billion. But how do their fortunes compare with those of past plutocrats?

There are those who could claim to be richer. John D. Rockefeller made about $1.5 billion in his career, according to his 1937 New York Times obit—about $26 billion in today’s dollars.

A better comparison, says Samuel Williamson, an economist who runs measuringworth.com, might be “relative output,” the ratio of wealth to gross domestic product.

Rockefeller’s $1.5 billion was about 1.6% of the economy in 1937. Were he to own the same percentage today, his fortune would be almost triple Bezos’.

Here’s what some of history’s richest people at the height of their wealth might be worth now using this approach.

  • $331 billion – John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937): Oil magnate usually considered the world’s first billionaire;
  • $321 billion – Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919): Sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901;
  • $238 billion – Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877): Shipping and railroad tycoon who built Grand Central Terminal;
  • $213 billion – Bill Gates (b. 1955): Microsoft Corp. co-founder whose foundation alone has a $51 billion endowment;
  • $210 billion – Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115 B.C.-53 B.C.): Roman politician-general beat back Spartacus’ slave revolt;
  • $203 billion – Alan the Red (c. 1040-1093): William the Conqueror’s cousin held much land after the Norman Conquest;
  • $169 billion – John Jacob Astor (1763-1848): Merchant who invested in New York real estate;
  • $93 billion – Warren Buffett (b. 1930): Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman known for frugality (by billionaire standards);
  • $53 billion – John Spencer (d. 1610): Merchant who traded with Spain and Turkey and became lord mayor of London;
  • $41 billion – James Brydges (1673-1744): Became the first nonlanded British millionaire in the South Sea Bubble;
  • $25 billion – Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204): The queen consort and duchess owned vast European estates;
  • $28 billion – Gaius Appuleius Diocles (b. 104): The charioteer’s winnings could’ve provided grain for Rome for a year.

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The wealthiest people alive today vs the richest people in history