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Comprehending the Absurd Wealth of John D. Rockefeller

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Standard Oil Co. wells, near Pawee, Oklahoma (Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Energy Dept.)
Standard Oil Co. wells, near Pawnee, Oklahoma (Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Energy Dept.)

 

When John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil took over the oil industry in the late 19th century and came to control 90 percent of the market in the early 1900s, he positioned himself to earn at a clip that has likely never been equaled before or since.

Before we get into the absurd wealth of Rockefeller, a brief economics lesson. If you have a monopoly on an industry, you’re in good shape. And if that industry involves something for which there is an inelastic demand—people need it and nothing’s going to change that — you’re sitting pretty indeed. Ergo, the reason for Rockefeller’s mammoth fortune.

Standard Oil was eventually broken up. (It split into a few companies you may have heard of, including BP, Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron.) And Rockefeller’s net worth rarely reflected his full earnings, because he gave away money nearly as quickly as he collected it. Yet as we look back, it is clear he had a fortune that is almost incomprehensible.

Born in 1839, Rockefeller lived until 1937. Forbes has noted that by the time of his death at 97, his assets equaled “1.5% of America’s total economic output.” (They also observed that, if this measure were applied to today’s economy, he would be worth four times what Bill Gates is.)

John Davison Rockefeller
(Photo Researchers/Science Source/Getty Images)

 

Rockefeller’s rise can be largely attributed to three factors. First, he was relentless about acquiring smaller competitors. (Some might substitute the word “ruthless.”) Second, he established secret deals with the railroads, letting him ship cheaply. Third, he simply never took his foot off the gas: he loved to work and never stopped. “I believe it is every man’s religious duty to get all he can honestly and to give all he can,” Rockefeller declared.

Rockefeller was indeed a giver. He was a driving force in the founding of the University of Chicago, contributing $80 million. (Forbes calculates this as equivalent to over $2 billion today.) Sam Parr tried to put a figure on the full size of both Rockefeller’s wealth and his giving in an article for The Hustle: “Rockefeller’s fortune peaked in 1912 at almost $900,000,000, but his estate totaled only $26,410,837 when he died, making him the biggest philanthropist ever to live.”

To learn more about this financial colossus, click here. (Here’s one additional tidbit: If you look at him above, you’ll notice a distinct absence of hair. This is because he suffered from alopecia.)

RealClearLife Staff