Making the Big Bucks: America's Top-Earning Business People Throughout History
There are wealthy people — and then there’s this group of the richest Americans throughout the entire history of the country. These savvy billionaires obtained their wealth through technology inventions, investments and their own business acumen and didn’t inherit a dime.
Many of them acquired their fortunes during the Gilded Age, when the United States was bursting with new inventions. Let’s take a look at the wealthiest individuals in U.S. history, based on their net worth after adjusting for today’s inflation. If you’re an aspiring businessman (or woman), pay attention because these gurus clearly knew exactly what to do to succeed.
30. Laurene Powell Jobs, $23.3 Billion
You might not recognize Laurene Powell Jobs, but you certainly know her late husband, Steve Jobs, who had a net worth of $10.2 billion at the time of his death in 2011. Laurene met the future Apple founder while she was studying at Stanford University, and the rest was history for the couple.
29. Michael Dell, $37.6 Billion
American billionaire businessman Michael Dell founded Dell Technologies, one of the world’s largest technology companies. He started his career as an amateur salesman and sold $18,000 worth of magazine subscriptions in high school. Consider that the first sign he was destined to lead a successful business.
28. John Insley Blair, $47.7 Billion
John Insley Blair (1802-1899) was an American entrepreneur in the railroad industry. Working prominently during the Industrial Revolution, Blair was one of the wealthiest men in the country during the 19th century with a fortune of $70 million. As president of 16 railroad companies, he was able to live quite comfortably.
27. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, $48.3 Billion
Cyrus H. K. Curtis (1850-1933) earned his wealth in the publishing industry. In 1883, he founded The Ladies’ Home Journal, the first magazine to reach a circulation of one million subscriptions. In 1891, Curtis founded the Curtis Publishing Company, which published The Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
26. William Weightman, $51.8 Billion
William Weightman (1813-1904) was a chemical manufacturer, who developed a synthetic form of quinine to treat malaria. When his uncle, chemist John Farr, died in 1847, Weightman became an administrator of his business, renaming it Powers and Weightman to represent his partnership with Thomas Powers. He profited substantially from quinine sales during the Civil War.
25. Sergey Brin, $52 Billion
If you Google Sergey Brin, you’re using the search engine the computer scientist created. Along with Larry Page, Brin founded Google in 1998. He met Page while the two attended Stanford University, and as college students, they built the prototype for Google.
24. James G. Fair, $52.9 Billion
James G. Fair (1831-1894) was a successful mining engineer and businessman during an age when everyone was mining for gold and silver. Along with other partners, he made his money on the Hale and Norcross Mine and Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1867.
23. Jim Walton, $53.2 Billion
Jim Walton is one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune — he’s the youngest son of Sam Walton — but he also joined the company’s real estate operations team in 1972 and proceeded to carve out his own accomplishments. In 2005, he replaced his older brother, John Walton, on the Walmart Board of Directors when he passed away.
22. Russell Sage, $53.6 Billion
Russell Sage (1816-1906) is still regarded as one of the smartest stock traders of all time. He pioneered a system of put and call options that is still used on Wall Street. Along with his partner, Jay Gould, Sage knew how to expertly buy and sell stock at predetermined prices.
21. Moses Taylor, $54.5 Billion
Moses Taylor (1806-1882) was worth about $70 million at the time of his death, making him one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century. The New York merchant and banker earned his wealth as the owner and controller of the National City Bank of New York (now known as Citibank).
20. Steve Ballmer, $54.8 Billion
From 2000 to 2014, Steve Ballmer served as the Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, one of the leading technology developers, manufacturers and computer software services in the world. A Stanford University dropout, Ballmer was hired by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
19. Sam Walton, $56.5 Billion
Jim Walton may have made the list as one of the wealthiest men in American history, but that doesn’t mean you can forget his father, Sam Walton (1918-1992). The entrepreneur was responsible for the founding of retail giants Walmart and Sam’s Club.
18. Andrew Mellon, $63.2 Billion
Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) was one of the wealthiest bankers in American history. A member of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he wore many hats: banker, businessman, industrialist, philanthropist, art collector (donating 126 paintings to the National Gallery of Art) and politician. He knew how to keep himself busy.
17. Warren Buffett, $63.8 Billion
When you think of the wealthiest businessmen in modern American history, Warren Buffett’s name probably comes to mind. He is one of the most successful investors in the world. As CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett owns many companies, including Heinz, Fruit of the Loom, Geico and the railroad BNSF.
16. Henry Ford, $67.2 Billion
Henry Ford (1863-1947) will forever be associated with his famous Model-T car and his automobile business sense. Founder of the Ford Motor Company, he also sponsored the development of the assembly line technique for mass production systems. This allowed all kinds of goods to be produced at a fraction of the cost.
15. Mark Zuckerberg, $73.6 Billion
It’s hard to imagine any college student achieving as much success as Mark Zuckerberg did when he co-founded Facebook while studying at Harvard University. Originally, he intended for the social media website to help Ivy League students connect with each other, but it quickly attracted international attention.
14. Bill Gates, $74 Billion
You know Bill Gates is rich, but just how wealthy is he? In 1975, he founded Microsoft Corporation with Paul Allen, and the money never stopped rolling in. Gates has served as chairman, CEO, president and chief software architect of the pioneering software corporation.
13. Marshall Field, $75 Billion
Marshall Field (1834-1906) was an expert entrepreneur and the founder of Marshall Field and Company Chicago-based department stores. The stores offered high-class quality and customer service. In fact, Field actually penned the famous retail quotes, "The customer is always right" and "Give the lady what she wants."
12. Jay Gould, $78.3 Billion
As a railroad executive and financier, Jay Gould (1836-1892) was a mastermind in the business world during the 19th century. He was active during the Industrial Revolution, when the railroad industry dominated the United States, and he also dominated in the gold market.
11. Friedrich Weyerhäuser, $91.2 Billion
Friedrich Weyerhäuser (1834-1914) was a timber mogul and the owner of Weyerhaeuser Company, which operated sawmills, paper factories and other innovative businesses and owned large areas of forested land. Along with his family, Weyerhäuser reportedly controlled an area of land the size of Wisconsin.
10. Charles and David Koch, $98 Billion
Charles and David Koch own Koch Industries, America’s second-largest, privately-owned business specializing in the oil and gas industries. Known as the Koch Brothers, the wealthy brothers assumed control of the business after the passing of their father, Fred Koch. The Koch Brothers have since proven they inherited their father’s smart business sense.
9. Alexander Turney Stewart, $100 Billion
Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876) operated one of the most successful wholesale and retail dry goods businesses during the 19th century. Known as A.T. Stewart, he founded the first department store, Marble Palace, in lower Manhattan on Broadway. It served as the model for how department stores would ultimately function.
8. Stephen Van Rensselaer, $101 Billion
Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839) once controlled more than a million acres in New York. Active in politics, he served in the New York Assembly and New York Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives. He also founded the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university.
7. Andrew Carnegie, $101 Billion
Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) is one of the more recognizable names on our list. As the founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, he oversaw the expansion of America’s growing steel industry during the Industrial Revolution. He’s also famous for selling a large portion of his assets to J.P. Morgan.
6. Richard B. Mellon, $103 Billion
Richard B. Mellon (1858-1933) changed the way bankers were involved in operations. Along with his brother, Andrew (also on our list), he founded Pittsburgh’s Mellon Bank. He became an investor, working with the Pittsburgh Coal Company and various steel, oil, coal and railroad companies, and he helped found Gulf Oil and the aluminum business Alcoa.
5. Stephen Girard, $120 Billion
Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was a masterful businessman who owned an entire fleet of trading ships. He used his shipping money to become a financier in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he bought banks and loaned money to the U.S. government during the War of 1812.
4. John Jacob Astor, $138 Billion
Many wealthy men earned their fortune from real estate profits, including John Jacob Astor (1763-1848). He invested in numerous New York real estate ventures as well as the fur trade industry following the American Revolutionary War. As a result, he became the first multi-millionaire in the U.S.
3. Jeff Bezos, $161 Billion
Who hasn’t used Amazon for online shopping? Founded in 1994 by businessman Jeff Bezos, the company began as an online bookstore but then expanded into the leading marketplace for online sales. Amazon is currently the world’s largest internet sales company, and we don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
2. Cornelius Vanderbilt, $205 Billion
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) built his famous wealth in the railroad industry and by investing in steamships. Referred to as "The Commodore," Vanderbilt improved the country’s transportation system. His economic models helped define the 19th century. In 2019, his net worth would be an impressive $205 billion.
1. John D. Rockefeller, $253 Billion
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) is iconic for all the right reasons. He found his calling in the oil industry. He standardized the quality of lamp oil and established the successful Standard Oil business. By 1880, Rockefeller dominated 90% of the country’s oil.