If you want to join the ranks of the uber-rich it would seem as though the rules are very simple: A) Get born into it, B) Control a resource that everyone will want or C) Both. History would indicate that thanks to modern rules and regs, this sort of thing was far easier in the old days with modern oligarchs having to settle for a paltry hundred billion or two, but it wasn’t always this way.
Read on to find out more about the 15 richest people who ever lived, how they made their money and what they did with it. Adjusted for inflation, of course.
#15 Richard Fitzalan 10th Earl of Arundel
Net Worth: $118.6 Billion
Who? An English nobleman and medieval military leader – he fought during the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Hundred Years War
Known for: Winding up King Edward III and getting away with it
How did he make his money? Inherited largely, in the form of land. Richard was born into a life of wealth and power though didn’t exactly spend his days supping wine and making paper aeroplanes from (the equivalent of) $100 bills. He was an effective military leader having fought in numerous battles, mainly in Scotland and France.
What did he spend it on? Over the course of his life, a fair amount was “given” to Kind Edward III in the form of substantial loans, which might account for the fact that he got away with antagonising the king over a number of issues, such as arriving late at the funeral of Queen Anne, but a large amount was still left to his heir on his deathbed.
Fun fact: Richard’s father died when he was just a boy, and due to political reasons he didn’t inherit any of his land and titles directly.
#14 John Jacob Astor
Net Worth: $121 Billion
Who? A German born American businessman, merchant, fur trader and investor
Known for: Establishing a family dynasty
How did he make his money? The first in a long and wealthy line of Astors took advantage of a new treaty between England and the US by importing furs from Montreal and shipping them from New York to Europe. His newfound wealth allowed him to purchase real estate in prestigious areas of New York, establishing the American Fur Company in 1807 and stay generally well ahead of the game in a rapidly developing city.
What did he spend it on? Following his retirement he supported a presidential campaign and left money after his death to build the Astor Library in New York and an orphanage in his German hometown of Walldorf along with other vested interests. At the time of his death he was the wealthiest person in the US.
Fun fact: Descendent John Jacob Astor IV was the wealthiest person on board the Titanic when it sank, with reports indicating he may have been crushed to death by one of the ship’s falling funnels.
#13 William de Warenne
Net Worth: $147.13 Billion
Who? The 1st Earl of Surrey, an English military leader and nobleman
Known for: Fighting his way to a fortune
How did he make his money? Unlike many others of this list, William de Warenne had to fight for his fortune. Quite literally. As the youngest son he did not stand to inherent his family’s rather small estates and was instead rewarded with lands by Duke Richard I for playing a significant role in the Battle of Mortemer and the Battle of Hastings. At one point his lands stretched over thirteen counties.
What did he spend it on? After visiting monasteries while travelling through Rome, William was impressed enough by the monks and their dedication to found a Cluniac priory on their own lands in England, restoring buildings for an abbey.
Fun fact: William was one of the few known to have been alongside William the Conquerer at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
#12 Bill Gates
Net Worth: $136 Billion
Who? The former CEO of Microsoft of course, but also, business magnate, philanthropist, investor, computer programmer, inventor
Known for: Aside from Microsoft, being a thoroughly nice bloke and setting up the Giving Pledge
How did he make his money? By essentially taking advantage of the personal computer revolution. A self-confessed computer nerd, Gates was fortunate enough to spend enough time around computers to develop software that would soon become a standard for an increasingly affordable consumer tool. Of course a good deal was also made from shares and investments.
What did he spend it on? Aside from the usual stuff – a fancy home, land and further investments, he and his wife established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the world, which aims to enhance healthcare and reduce poverty. He also helped set up The Giving Pledge, a campaign to encourage the world’s wealthiest to commit to giving at least half their fortunes to charity – current 127 billionaires or former billionaires have signed up.
Fun fact: Bill’s kids are allegedly set to inherit just $10 million each; a move intended to keep them balanced and teach them that their own hard work is meaningful and important.
#11 Alan Rufus
Net Worth: $178.65 billion
Who? The 1st Lord of Richmond
Known for: Being William the Conqueror’s pal and nephew
How did he make his money? Largely from land and investments in steel. After playing a vital role in the Battle of Hastings and leading a brutal suppression against rebels and he received over 250,000 acres in land grants from his Uncle.
What did he spend it on? He donated large sums to a number of religious houses and founded the Benedictine St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1088, alongside King William II. He also built Richmond Castle as his own place of residence.
Fun fact: Rufus was the richest man in British history – in fact he owned 7.33% of the net national income at the time.
#10 Cornelius Vanderbilt
Net Worth: $185 Billion
Who? American tycoon, businessmen, philanthropist
Known for: Building a railroad empire, having an awesome name
How did he make his money? A self-made man, Vanderbilt started off as a steamboat entrepreneur with a $100 vessel and built this into an ocean-going steam ship company. He then moved on to railroads, turning around a line that was deemed worthless and buying control of a series of key locations in and around New York to expand his empire to epic proportions.
What did he spend it on? Vanderbilt gave $1 million, then the largest charitable donation in US history, to endow what would become Vanderbilt University. He also bought a church and regularly donated to churches around the country. When he died, 95% of his wealth was left to his eldest son, who had impressed his father with his railroad management skills and was considered the only one capable of maintaining the business empire.
Fun fact: Vanderbilt had 13 children, four of whom contested his will but lost. His great, great, great, great grandson is actor Timothy Olyphant.
#9 Henry Ford
Net Worth: $199 Billion
Who? Industrialist, engineer, visionary (and philanthropist)
Known for: Revolutionising the automobile industry
How did he make his money? By selling cars – lots of them. Ford’s vision for mass production of inexpensive goods resulted in an automobile that many middle-class Americans could afford. Interestingly this involved more than doubling wages for workers, which helped raise productivity and lowered training costs, a concept credited in many technical and business innovations since.
What did he spend it on? Aside from increased wages for employees, Ford donated a lot to charitable causes, though this often involved direct acts of kindness to individual people. Ford was openly critical of philanthropy even though around a third of his money seems to have been used in such ways. He also funded the Henry Ford hospital in Detroit and was involved in a number of historical preservation projects.
Fun fact: An example of one of Ford’s acts of kindness came during a drive through the countryside, where he came across an elderly couple whose farmhouse had been destroyed by a storm. After a brief chat he reached into his pocket and gave them all the money he had – around $200 (it was a lot in those days).
#8 Muammar Gaddafi
Net Worth: $200 Billion
Who? Libyan revolutionary and politician
Known for: Being a nasty, selfish, megalomaniacal arsehole
How did he make his money? It’s only been fairly recently that evidence has come to light indicating the sheer size of Gaddafi’s wealth. It’s not too hard to work out how he amassed such a fortune either – domineering control over the country with the largest oil supply in Africa for 41 years makes for a very good head start. Following that up with real estate and corporate investments all over the world, including a stake in Italian football club Juventus, London’s Financial Times and car company Fiat; Gadaffi was the richest man in the world by some margin.
What did he spend it on? To a great extent, living it large. Gaddafi had luxury homes all over the world, but he also “invested” a fair bit in buying support from African leaders. Sadly philanthropy wasn’t high on his “to do” list.
Fun fact: Amongst Gaddafi’s eccentricities, which included dressing like a 16th century drag queen, carrying around his own tent and a fear of flying and elevators, was the use of an all female guard, hand-picked and told to wear make-up and high-heeled combat boots.
#7 William the Conqueror
Net Worth: $229.5 Billion
Who? The King of England
Known for: Conquering
How did he make his money? After defeating King Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William was crowned King on Christmas day that year, inheriting all the land and riches that came with it. Also, taxes.
What did he spend it on? Prior to taking the throne William spent a fair bit on hiring soldiers and knights to ensure his armies were better prepared than Harold’s legions of drafted part-timers. After this he spent largely on “settling” the kingdom by invading neighbouring territories and securing borders and infrastructure, having ordered many fortifications to be built to protect against the threat of rebellion.
Fun fact: It was William who ordered the compilation of the Domesday Book, a survey of the ownership and liabilities of land in much of England and Wales, which allowed him to effectively tax the people of England to fund his armies. It is the oldest public record in England and the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe.
#6 Mir Osman Ali Khan
Net Worth: $230 billion
Who? The ruler of Hyderabad, a principality in India
Known for: Selling enough diamonds to create his own currency
How did he make his money? A vast inheritance that came with the throne, though this was largely down to mining royalties rather than land revenue. The Hyderabad state was then the sole supplier of diamonds globally; during his reign Mir Osman was reputed to be the richest man in the world.
What did he spend it on? He patronised education, science and development, started his own bank and created the only state with its own currency. Up to 11% of his budget was spent on education, including the founding of Osmania University, and many donations were made to institutions in India and abroad. Nearly all major public buildings in Hyderabad City were built during his reign, and he also paid for a Royal Australian Navy vessel in 1940.
Fun fact: In 1947 Mir Osman gave a gift of diamond jewels, a tiara and a necklace to Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess) of England on the occasion of her marriage. The “Nizam of Hyderabad necklace” is still worn by her today.
#5 Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov
Net Worth: $300 Billion
Who? A Russian Tsar
Known for: Being a terrible military commander
How did he make his money? After joining the army at the age of 19, serving for three years and somehow reaching the rank of colonel, Romanov inherited the Russian throne from his father in 1894. Russia happened to go through considerable economic growth during his reign, completing the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad, which is still the largest railway in the world,
What did he spend it on? Largely funding wars, which didn’t work out too well. Romanov was forced into abdication in 1917 after dragging Russia from being one of the great powers of the world to the verge of economic and military collapse. Highlights include provoking a war with Japan in 1904, defeat in which led to strikes and riots, “Bloody Sunday” in 1905 where the army in St.Petersburg shot at crowds demanding reform and the decision to take direct control of the Russian Army in World War One, a disastrous campaign in which 3.3 million Russians were killed.
Fun fact: Nikolai and his family (and assorted servants) were handed over to the local Ural Soviet like a parcel, including a written receipt, and were executed by Bolshevik revolutionists, almost certainly on the orders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
#4 Andrew Carnegie
Net Worth: $310 Billion
Who? Industrialist, philanthropist
Known for: Being the quintessential philanthropist
How did he make his money? The steel industry. He also raised money as a bond salesman and invested in railroads, bridges and oil derricks before building the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh, which he sold to J.P Morgan in 1901 for the equivalent of around $14 billion today; not a bad nest-egg for your retirement. Having been born to poor parents and starting out as a telegrapher, it’s a true “rags to riches” story.
What did he spend it on? As seems more typical when you’re not born into money, Carnegie was a fervent philanthropist and spent the years after his retirement devoted to providing capital for public interest and social and educational advancement. This included the establishment of public libraries across English-speaking countries, the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Institute in Washington, establishing large pension funds for his former employees and the Carnegie Hero Fund for the recognition of deeds of heroism, among many others.
Fun fact: In 1889 he penned an essay “The Gospel of Wealth”, which stated that the rich has a moral obligation to distribute money to promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. He also said “The man who dies rich dies disgraced”.
#3 John D. Rockefeller
Net Worth: $340 Billion
Who? Business magnate, oil baron, philanthropist.
Known for: Making a ton of money from oil and giving a lot of it away
How did he make his money? Oil. Rockefeller revolutionised the oil industry, founding the Standard Oil company, which proceeded to establish a monopoly by buying up rival companies and expanding marketing and distribution around the world. By the early 1880s it controlled around 90% of US refineries and pipelines.
What did he spend it on? During the course of his life Rockefeller donated over $500 million to various causes, including funding the establishment of the University of Chicago and Rockefeller institute for Medical Research. A devout Christian, he would pay 10% of earnings from his very first pay check to the church. His philanthropic ventures were inspired in part by Carnegie.
Fun fact: In his later life JD became known for giving dimes to adults and nickels to children wherever he went, a practice he extended (as a joke) to wealthy folk who clearly didn’t need it.
#2 The Rothschild Family
Net Worth: $350 Billion
Known for: Secretly running the world
How did they make their money? Descending from Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who established a banking business in the 1760s, The Rothschild Family started out dealing in luxury items and would go on to open a series of banks, ultimately expanding their influence to levels that allowed them to (allegedly) manipulate markets and affect significant events in human history.
What did they spend it on? Loans to the British government during the Napoleonic wars, funding Brazil’s claims for independence from Portugal, funding the construction of the Suez Canal – basically if there was someone in the world that could help expand their influence and needed money, the Rothschild’s were there to offer it.
Fun fact: Conspiracy theories have surrounded the Rothschild family for over a century, ranging from the rise of Wall Street to financing arms deals and provoking wars, playing both sides of the conflict for a profit.
#1 Mansa Musa I
Net Worth: $400 Billion
Who? A 14th century African king
Known for: Treating gold like water
How did he make his money? Essentially by being the king of a country that controlled half of the world’s supply of gold and salt, which he then obviously sold for a profit. The Mailian Empire covered modern day Ghana, Timbuktu and Mali,
What did he spend it on? A devout Muslim, Mansa spent much of his wealth constructing mosques throughout his territories, many of which still stand today. He was also rather slap-dash with his cash, handing out solid gold staffs to each of the 500 people that followed him on his pilgrimages, and giving so much of it away that the economy in these areas was affected for more than 20 years.
Fun fact: Mansa’s immense wealth didn’t last long after he died – civil wars and invading conquerors helped themselves to much of it, ensuring that two generations later it was all but gone.