Sept. 29 – The World’s First Billionaire

Gay Lynn HillBell Ringers, Economics(BR)

On Sept. 29th, American oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller becomes the world’s first billionaire.

John D. Rockefeller, most famous for starting his company Standard Oil, revolutionized America at the turn of the 20th century, at his peak controlling 90 percent of the United States’ oil market. He realized earlier than anyone that the true money in the industry was not in drilling for oil, but rather refining it.

Standard Oil became known as the safest and most reliable product on the market, and thus was used in everything from kerosene-burning lamps to the new gasoline powered automobiles being bought by the masses.

In 1911, Standard Oil was broken up into 34 separate companies due to federal antitrust laws, many of those companies (e.g. ExxonMobil, Chevron) are still industry leaders today. These individual companies were worth more alone than combined as a whole, and as a result, the breakup made Rockefeller the world’s first billionaire, worth almost 2 percent of the nation’s entire economy. After adjusting for inflation, Rockefeller was worth approximately $400 billion in 2017 dollars.

Rockefeller is also credited with helping establish the modern system of targeted philanthropy, setting up foundations for various causes related to medicine, education, and scientific research. Additionally, he founded three universities: the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, and Central Philippine University.

  1. Even the richest people in the world today don’t come close to the level of wealth Rockefeller amassed 100 years ago. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the closest at the moment, with a net worth valued at slightly over $100 billion. Why do you think that is?
  2. John D. Rockefeller was no doubt a capitalist and a monopolist, yet he believed wholeheartedly in using in his fortune for the betterment of society, as evidenced by his commitment to philanthropy and education. Do you think that a modern magnate with comparable resources, could or would contribute to society as much as he did? What problems might they focus on solving? Is there anyone you can think of who is doing this already?

Image Citation:

23, July 2018, John D. Rockefeller. [Digital image]. Retrieved from <>.