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:
10. Richard Mellon (1858-1933)
Via the bank's funds, Mellon bolstered his fortune with investments in coal, aluminum, and more.Library of Congress
9. Stephen Girard (1750-1831)
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.Wikimedia Commons
8. Bill Gates (1955-)
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.Sean Gallup/Getty Images
7. John Jacob Astor (1763-1848)
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.Wikimedia Commons
6. Andrew Mellon (1855-1937)
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.Wikimedia Commons
5. Henry Ford (1863-1947)
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./AFP/Getty Images
4. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
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.Wikimedia Commons
3. Jakob Fugger (1459-1525)
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.Wikimedia Commons
2. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)
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."Wikimedia Commons
1. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)
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. -/AFP/Getty Images
Next, check out the recent study claiming that the richest one percent are to blame for your unhappiness. Then, see what Bill Gates looked like way back in 1983.