May 10, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

The 12 Richest People In History—And Their Net Worth Today


Akbar I

The Mughal Empire once ruled almost all of modern day India, and under the control of their third ruler, Akbar I or Akbar the Great, they became one of the most powerful empires in the world. 

Akbar’s court was extravagant and luxurious—but it’s hard to truly grasp just how much wealth he controlled. 

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There’s No Comparison

While there is no real way to accurately compared Akbar I’s wealth to the modern day, his empire controlled an unbelievable 25% of the world’s GDP.

 Since he had complete control over the empire, that’s like having a net worth of over $20 trillion in today’s dollars.

"Akbar With Lion and Calf"Nataraja, Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Carnegie

In the late 1800s, steel was the hottest commodity on Earth—and if you needed steel in America, you got it from Andrew Carnegie. He built his first steel mill in 1875. By 1901, he sold the Carnegie Steel Company that he’d built in the decades since for over $300 million.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Andrew Carnegie, American businessman and philanthropist.Theodore C. Marceau, Wikimedia Commons

He Gave It All Away

Adjusted for inflation, Andrew Carnegie’s net worth reached $310 billion. After selling Carnegie steel, he became a famous philanthropist, eventually giving away $350 million in his lifetime—nearly 90% of his total wealth.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Andrew Carnegie, American businessman and philanthropistProject Gutenberg, Wikimedia Commons

Henry Ford

Henry Ford—and the affordable Model Ts that rolled off of his ingenious assembly lines—completely revolutionized the modern world as we know it. 

This made Henry Ford extremely famous—and extremely rich.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Henry Ford in 1888 (aged 25)Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

You Can’t Take It With You 

By the time of his death, Henry Ford was worth an estimated $180 billion (in today's dollars), leaving most of his wealth to the Ford Foundation, which is still running today. 

As recently as 2019, the Ford Foundation provided nearly $200 million in grants and initiatives.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Henry Ford in 1919Hartsook, Wikimedia Commons

John of Gaunt 

John of Gaunt was the lowly fourth son of King Edward III. That meant he’d never rule a kingdom himself—but he made it work. Between his royal birth, lucky land grants, and some extremely rich wives, he became one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.

Anachronistic portrait of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399)Lucas Cornelisz, Wikimedia Commons

There’s Always Money In Castles

In feudal England, all the money was in land—and John of Gaunt had a lot of land. With dozens of castles across England and France, modern estimates put Gaunt’s wealth around the equivalent of $110 billion.

Marriage Of Blanche Of Lancaster And John Of GauntHorace Wright, Wikimedia Commons

Jay Gould

Jay Gould was maybe the least popular of 19th-century America’s Robber Barons. He made his money in railroads and on the stock market—but his business practises weren’t exactly on the level.

Grayscale Photo of Jay Gould, American financierBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

He Crashed The Stock Market

Jay Gould’s tactics peaked his net worth at around the equivalent of $70 billion in today’s dollars—and made him absolutely despised. His shady attempt to corner the gold market caused a mass panic and led to the infamous Black Friday of 1869.

Grayscale Photo of Jay Gould, American financierLibrary of Congress, Picryl

Mansa Musa I

Jay Gould tried to corner the gold market, but he had nothing on Mansa Musa I. Leader of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, Musa controlled trade across the Sahara—most importantly gold mined south of the desert—and it made him perhaps the single richest person in history.

Detail showing Mansa Musa sitting on a throne and holding a gold coinBibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons

He Was The Original John D. Rockefeller

Mansa Musa I was famous for his wealth and generosity even in his time. Some scholars claim that he gave away so much gold when he travelled through Egypt that he caused a national depreciation in its value.

While his wealth and power are almost impossible to truly compare to modern society, some sources have estimated his personal net worth at more than $400 billion.

Mansa Moussa on the map of Angelino DulcertAngelino Dulcert, Wikimedia Commons

Mir Osman Ali Khan Was The Richest Man On The Planet

The ruler of the princely state of Hyderabad during the British Raj, Time magazine called Mir Osman Ali Khan “richest man on the planet” in 1937. He owned 50 Rolls-Royces and used a 185-carat diamond the size of a lime as a paperweight.

Grayscale Photo of  Mir Osman Ali Khan in 1926Farhang Nizam, Wikimedia Commons

Diamonds Are A Billionaire’s Best Friend

Most billionaires made their money in boring stuff like steel and railroads. Mir Osman Ali Khan’s came from his state’s rich diamond mines—hence the paper weight. Adjusted for inflation, Khan’s net worth was upwards of $230 billion.

The Nizam Of Hyderabad Pays Homage To The King And Queen At The Delhi DurbarUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

John D. Rockefeller Was An Oil Man

The son of a con artist, John D. Rockefeller’s shrewd instincts led to the creation of Standard Oil, which, before it was broken up in a landmark antitrust suit, refined up to 90% of all American oil.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of 56 year old John D. Rockefeller.Scientific American Compiling Dep't, Wikimedia Commons

He Was The First Ever Billionaire

Maybe John D. Rockefeller’s biggest claim to fame is that he was the world’s first confirmed, actual billionaire. Not adjustment for inflation, just one billion dollars in his bank account. But that doesn’t do it justice. Today, his net worth would be more like $340 billion.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of old John D. Rockefeller sitting on a chairAmerican Press Association, Wikimedia Commons

Alan Rufus 

Alan Rufus is proof that it’s not about how great you are—it’s about who you know. At first, Rufus was just a relatively minor landowner in Normandy. Then he crossed the English Channel with William the Conqueror in 1066. That changed things a little bit.

Alan Rufus, from a larger 14th century illuminationMS. Lyell 22, Wikimedia Commons

He Was In The Right Place At The Right Time

Rufus must have impressed the Conqueror, because after the Battle of Hastings, William rewarded him with control of the Honour of Richmond, one of the most important and productive regions in England. 

By the time he passed, Rufus’s fortune was £11,000. That may seem small—but compared to net income, that’s the equivalent of $180 billion today.

Richmond Castle seen from across the River SwaleAndrew Bowden, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Commodore Built Railroads

As railroads began stitching North America together, Cornelius Vanderbilt was leading the charge—and getting filthy rich while doing it. Nicknamed “The Commodore,” Vanderbilt’s gruff behavior made him a controversial figure in his own time.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, head-and-shoulders portraitMathew Brady's studio, Wikimedia Commons

He Built A Legacy

The Commodore amassed the equivalent of $185 billion in his lifetime, providing the foundation for the Vanderbilts to become one of the richest and most powerful families in America—including modern celebrities like Anderson Cooper and Timothy Olyphant.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Cornelius VanderbiltHowell & Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

He Came, He Saw, He Got Rich

William of Normandy was a bastard by birth, but that didn’t stop him from grasping control of his duchy with an iron fist. Though he had only a tenuous claim to the throne of England, he invaded in 1066, defeated the weak English king, and changed world history forever.

Oh, and he got stinking rich in the process.

Portrait Painting of King William I ('The Conqueror')National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

To The Winner Go The Spoils

Conquering England made William of Normandy unimaginably rich. Modern estimates put his net worth at over $220 billion. And he enjoyed the fruits of his labor, too. By the time of his funeral, his body was so bloated that they couldn’t fit him in his coffin.

Portrait Painting of King William I ('The Conqueror')Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

William de Warenne Proved Himself

Back in Normandy, William de Warenne was just the second son of a minor landholder—he didn’t stand to make much of a dent in the world. But after proving himself on the battlefield, de Warenne got himself noticed by William the Conqueror himself. 

 If you want to be one of the richest people in history, that’s a very good start.

Imaginary Portrait of William de WarenneNational Trust, Wikimedia Commons

He Got The Land

De Warenne impressed again at the Battle of Hastings, and got some seriously juicy lands in England as a reward. The value of of his estates by the time he died is estimated at $150 billion in today’s dollars.

Statue of William de Warenne a Norman noblemanStorye book, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


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