richest people in history

Top 10 Richest People in History

If you think we’re currently living in the period of human history that produces the richest people to have ever lived, think again. The (inflation-adjusted) Top 10 richest people in history are all long dead (although Bill Gates is certainly coming close to entering the Top 10). The paths to their wealth differed, but all of them managed to accumulate sums of wealth that even kings and emperors (who are not counted in this ranking) could get jealous of. The following shows you the (current) ranking of the Top 10 richest people of all time.

The 10 Richest People in History

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1. Jakob Fugger

Among all non-kings and non-emperors, Jakob Fugger was the richest person to have ever lived. He possessed a total wealth of around 2.1 million guilders which corresponds to around $400 billion today. The German merchant was born on March 6, 1459 in the Free Imperial City of Augsburg, back then part of the Holy Roman Empire (modern-day Germany). Fugger’s father of the same name was already a successful merchant and the founder of what would become the Fugger dynasty. But it was Jakob Fugger who really made the Fugger name known in all of Europe.

The main part of Fugger’s wealth stemmed from mining and trading with medals, especially copper. Beginning in the 15th Century, copper had an increasing value as it was used for the production of various types of armory as well as kitchen appliances. Fugger recognized this trend and got heavily involved in the mining business. He loaned money to various mine owners in the region and in return demanded first buying rights for their metals. This step for step gave Fugger an almost total control of the metal trade in the region from Augsburg all the way down to Rome. When it came to copper, Fugger even created a monopoly well beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, reaching as far as Gdansk in the Kingdom of Poland.

Aside from his mining and metal trading dominance, Fugger also established himself as a banker. Fugger financed many members of the Habsburg family, most notably Maxmilian I. who, with Fugger’s help, rose to become the Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. Even the Vatican was in debt with Jakob Fugger. In fact, various noblemen, dukes and kings all over Europe owed money to Fugger by the start of the 16th Century.

Despite his incredible wealth, Fugger was quite popular among the common population, first and foremost among the people of his hometown of Augsburg. In 1516, Fugger built the world’s first social housing complex in Augsburg. The houses were meant for poor Catholic citizens of Augsburg who were allowed to live there for a an extremely low rent (1 guilder per year). The social housing complex, called the Fuggerei, is still in place and active with the same rules and rent that were set by Fugger himself more than 500 years ago.

Fugger died on December 30, 1525 in his hometown. He was 66 years old. Since he remained childless, all his wealth was bequeathed to his oldest nephew Anton Fugger who continued his uncle’s legacy alongside his siblings, even expanding the family business to the “New World” in the Americas.

2. John Rockefeller

john rockefeller - second of the richest people in history

John Rockefeller is the second richest civilian in history. He is also still the richest American who has ever lived. Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839 in the small town of Richford in upstate New York. His father, William Rockefeller, was a somewhat shady traveling salesman who sold what he claimed to be “elixirs” to gullible buyers, earning himself the nickname “Devil Bill”. Rockefeller first started to work as a bookkeeper at the age of 16. At the age of only 20, Rockefeller then started his own business in the produce commission industry alongside his brother and a business partner. But soon thereafter, in the 1860s, Rockefeller had a new field of interest: Oil, which he recognized as a the most valuable resource of the future. Rockefeller and his partners built their first oil refinery in Cleveland, Ohio in 1863. After the American Civil War, the Cleveland refinery was only one of five still active refineries in the United States.

In 1870, Rockefeller broke off his partnership and went on to found his own company Standard Oil. He secretly cut a deal with railroad providers who sharply increased the freight charges oil producers had to pay for the distribution of their product. The oil company therefore was able to quickly buy out competing oil refineries. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil became the by far biggest oil producer in the entire world. At the start of the 20th Century, Rockefeller owned around 90% of the United State’s entire oil production which accounted for 85% of the world’s oil production at the time. This, obviously, made Rockefeller the richest man in the world with a wealth that would translate into around $350 billion today. In 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States deemed Standard Oil an illegal monopoly and made the company split into 34 independent companies. Many of those companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron or ConocoPhillips, still belong to the biggest oil producers in America.

The forced break-up did not make Rockefeller any poorer. He was allowed to keep considerable shares in each of the companies which on average rose five times in worth. Rockefeller spent the last years of his life in Florida. He died on May 23, 1937 in Ormond Beach, Florida at the age of 97. He was married once and had 5 children.

3. Andrew Carnegie

andrew carnegie - richest humans in history

Born on November 25, 1835 in the small town of Dunfermline, Scotland, Andrew Carnegie was the third richest non-ruler in human history and the richest non-royal British-born person of all time. The Carnegie family came from a long tradition of Scottish weavers. After the economic situation of the Carnegies worsened, the family decided to immigrate to the United States in 1848 where they settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Andrew Carnegie got his first job at 14 when he became a telegraph messenger boy working for a telegraph company in Pittsburgh. At age 18, he was then employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company as a telegraph operator. With the help of his boss there, Thomas Scott, he became familiar with the world of investments. Carnegie first exclusively concentrated on the railroad industry, the first big industry in the United States. Later he would then also invest in several oil companies, recognizing the value the natural resource had for industries of the future.

While already rich at that point, Andrew Carnegie rose to become one of the richest humans in history after he recognized the value of another resource: Steel. Carnegie recognized that the rapidly growing America would need a lot of steel for the many railroads, bridges and buildings it planned to build. In 1892, he founded the Carnegie Steel Company which quickly became the largest steel producer in the United States and subsequently in the world. By the start of the 20th Century, the company also became the most valuable company in the world altogether. All that generated a modern-day equivalent wealth of around $310 billion for Carnegie.

Carnegie eventually sold his company to John Morgan (the founder of the investment bank J.P. Morgan) and the company became the United States Steel Corporation (commonly known as U.S. Steel) which still exists today. Carnegie spent the last 18 years of his life as a popular philanthropist. He used his money to build around 3,000 public libraries throughout the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. He additionally invested in the arts, among other building Carnegie Hall in New York City, one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world. He also heavily invested in the American education system, among other founding the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now known as the Carnegie Mellon University). Carnegie was also involved in many social causes. He was a strong opponent of racial segregation and of the increasing American imperialism in the beginning of the 20th Century. Likewise, Carnegie was critical of the Royal family of his British country of birth and praised American republicanism.

Andrew Carnegie suffered a bronchial pneumonia and died on August 11, 1919 in Lenox, Massachusetts where he had moved to two years earlier. He was 83 years old. He left behind his wife (married in 1887) and his only child, a daughter (born in 1897).

4. William Vanderbilt

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William Vanderbilt comes fourth in the Top 10 of richest people in history. Vanderbilt was born on May 8, 1821 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The American’s father was Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American (of Dutch descent) water transportation and railroad tycoon who laid the foundation for the Vanderbilt fortune. As his oldest son, William inherited his father’s wealth after the latter died in 1877. He took over his father’s railroad empire and almost doubled its worth in the following 9 years.

His personal wealth of around $230 billion (modern-day inflation-adjusted equivalent) was also higher than that of his father’s. Aside from being a railroad magnate, Vanderbilt was also one of America’s biggest philanthropists. He gave money to many causes, such as the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). He also founded his own university, the Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.

William Vanderbilt died on December 8, 1885 in his home in New York City only 9 years after his father. He left behind his wife and a total of 8 children.

5. Henry Ford

henry ford - richest people in history top 5

Henry Ford completes the first five of the Top 10 richest people in history. Ford was born on July 30, 1863 in Greenfield, Michigan, USA a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He was born into a family of immigrant farmers. His father was born in Ireland, his mother in Belgium. Ford despised farm work and had greater ambitions. Having had a known talent and passion for technical work, Ford first became a machinist and then an engineer. Ford started work at The Detroit Edison Company, an electrical company founded by inventor Thomas Edison. There, he was quickly promoted to chief engineer. Ford used his high-ranking position to experiment on his vision of a gasoline engine. He succeeded in 1896, inventing a self-propelled vehicle which he called the “Ford Quadricycle”. While this was not the first automobile in history (German engineer Carl Benz had already invented the automobile in 1885), Ford hoped to make the automobile a mass product with his model.

With the help of various Detroit-based investors such as Harold Wills and William Murphy, Ford was able to quit the Edison Company and start his own business in 1901, the Henry Ford Company. However, Ford did not see eye to eye with his investors who pressured him to make expensive cars for the few instead of affordable models for the many, as Ford had always envisioned. In 1902, Ford left his own company (which was then renamed into “Cadillac Automobile Company”) and instead founded a new company in 1903, the Ford Motors Company. Ford’s concept of building cars that his own workers would be able to afford, proved to be a golden idea. Ford’s first car, the Model T, was introduced in 1908. By 1927, the car sold over 16 million times, making it the 9th-best selling car in history to date.

Ford’s pioneering vision unsurprisingly made him a great fortune which amounted to around $199 billion by today’s standards. But as an industrialist, Ford’s concept of mass production of inexpensive goods paired with high wages for workers (known as “Fordism“) also shaped the entire global Western economy of the first half of the 20th Century and was the major factor that led to the modern-day era of consumerism.

Aside from being a successful business owner, Ford also tried to establish himself as a politician. His run as the Democrat candidate for the U.S. Senate seat for Michigan in 1918 ended in defeat, however. Ford’s most controversial side involved his open antisemitism. In the 1920s he bought The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he used to spread many of his anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. His book The International Jew is still regarded as one of the most antisemitic publications in history. It was published worldwide and among other read by Adolf Hitler, the antisemitic leader of Nazi Germany, who admired Ford and called him “an inspiration”. Ford later retracted some of his antisemitic statements and conspiracy theories and distanced himself from the Nazis.

Despite some of his controversial views, Ford was without a doubt one of the most talented and visionary businessmen in human history. Ford died on April 7, 1947 in Dearborn, Michigan. He was 83 years old, leaving behind his wife. His only child, son Edsel Ford, had already died from stomach cancer 4 years prior at the age of only 49.

6. Cornelius Vanderbilt

7. Alan Rufus

8. William de Warenne

9. John Astor

10. Stephen Girard

top 10 richest people in history

The 10 Richest People in History

(as of December 2019; inflation-adjusted in U.S. Dollars)

Top 10 Richest People in History:
~ $400 billion
~ $350 billion
~ $310 billion
~ $230 billion
~ $200 billion
~ $185 billion
~ $180 billion
~ $150 billion
~ $140 billion
~ $120 billion

Note: Kings/Emperors or other rulers of a country/empire/tribe/people were not considered for this ranking since their wealth is not measurable in any convincing way. The Top 10 richest people in history ranked here all owned their wealth not trough their position as rulers and de facto owners of a country/people, but because they accumulated it as private citizens. Noblemen are eligible in the ranking, however.

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