Who was the first billionaire?

BBC History Revealed shares the first person in history to own a thousand million…

American business magnate JD Rockefeller sits at a desk

This isn’t about who could be counted as a billionaire once their fortune has been converted into today’s money – so no, Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (often called the ‘richest man in Rome’) isn’t here.

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It’s about who was the first to hit the magic ten figures. According to US newspapers of 29 September 1916, John D Rockefeller became the first billionaire when share prices of Standard Oil Company had shot up the previous day, although there are many – including Rockefeller’s own son – who think the newspapers had exaggerated.

Ron Chernow, in his biography of the wealthy industrialist, claimed the Rockefeller fortune peaked at around $900 million in 1913. (Don’t feel too sorry for him – that was worth nearly 2.5 per cent of the national economy.) If so, we need to look at another successful American entrepreneur: Henry Ford. The automobile and assembly line maestro crossed the billion mark in the 1920s. When asked by a reporter how it felt to be a billionaire, he famously muttered: “Oh sh*t!”

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed