Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have traded places at the top of the global rich list several times. Bernard Arnault, chief executive of luxury goods giant LMVH, has also been in the mix for the title of richest man in the world. All three of these super-wealthy individuals have surpassed the landmark of $200 billion net worth at various points since 2020. This figure has fluctuated for all three men, as much of their wealth is based on their stock holdings in their companies. Bezos hit $200 million first in August 2020, as Amazon stock surged at least partially as a result of an increase in home deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just over a year later, the exponential rise in Tesla’s share price pushed Musk ahead of Bezos and Arnault, making him the third person in history to hit $200 million net worth.
All three of these men clearly have amassed fortunes of historic proportions. If their net worth is measured in pure dollar amounts, whoever currently ranks as the richest of the three could certainly be called the richest man in history. But how does their wealth compare to the relative riches of some of the wealthiest people in history?
Elon Musk first joined the ranks of the tech elite when Elon and his brother Kimbal sold their Zip2 software company to Compaq for $307 million in 1999. Musk was then a founder of PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Musk’s fortune has grown through numerous ventures since then, most notably the electric vehicle company Tesla and pioneering aerospace company SpaceX. Jeff Bezos’ path to super-rich status has been more straightforward, with online retail giant Amazon accounting for the vast majority of his net worth. Bezos’ other ventures have included the space flight company Blue Origin and The Washington Post newspaper, the latter of which Bezos purchased for $250 million in 2013.
Musk and Bezos have been the two biggest individual beneficiaries of a tech boom that has created numerous billionaires. Some of the other heavyweights of the 21st-century tech industry include Facebook founder and present Meta chief Mark Zuckerburg, Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Each of these prominent tech figures is certain of a place on the list of any list of the richest men in history. But how do they compare to the industrial heavyweights who amassed their fortunes in previous centuries?
Leading American industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries include steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Standard Oil Company founder John D. Rockefeller, automobile pioneer Henry Ford, and marine and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. All of these names have since become synonymous with immense wealth and influence.
In 1916, Rockefeller became the first man in history to amass a personal fortune of $1 billion. Andrew Carnegie is considered the second richest of these industrial heavyweights, with his net worth mostly consisting of the $480 million he sold the Carnegie Steel Company for in 1901. Adjusted for inflation, this would give Rockefeller and Carnegie a net worth of $418 billion and $11.8 billion respectively. This would place Carnegie’s wealth way below that of Musk and Bezos, while Rockefeller was worth almost twice as much as them.
But adjusting historical figures’ net worth for inflation doesn’t tell the whole story. Musk and Bezos have both used their fortunes to pursue space exploration. Bezos made headlines worldwide with Blue Origin’s first suborbital space flight in 2020. Musk’s SpaceX is the first private space company to launch, orbit, and recover its own spacecraft. John D. Rockefeller may have been wealthier than Musk and Bezos in terms of pure numbers, but the possibilities his wealth provided were constrained by the technologies of the time in which he lived.
Kings and Conquerors
Many rulers in history have commanded the wealth of entire nations. Mans Musa, the Medieval ruler of the Mali Empire, is said to have brought 60,000 servants with him on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. Musa’s distribution of some of his huge gold reserves had major economic consequences, causing the price of gold to fall across the Medieval Muslim world.
Other historic leaders have enjoyed similarly incredible wealth. Augustus Caesar of the Roman Empire’s net worth is estimated to be $4.6 trillion when adjusted for inflation. The Biblical figure of King Solomon is another high-ranking historic ruler, amassing a net worth during his lifetime estimated to be worth the equivalent of $2.2 trillion. These figures are far beyond the wealth of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
It isn’t even necessary to look this far back in history to find rulers who may be worth considerably more than tech’s two richest men. Many economists rank the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin among the top ten richest men in history due to his near-complete control of a nation accounting for 9.6% of the entire global GDP.
A report from The Los Angeles Times after the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2012 claimed that Gaddafi had a net worth of $200 billion. This would mean that Gaddafi passed the $200 billion mark almost a decade before Musk and Bezos. However, a Forbes article refuted The Los Angeles Times’ claims. Much of the $200 billion attributed to Muammar Gaddafi was held in accounts representing the sovereign wealth of the nation of Libya.
Other contemporary contenders for the crown of richest man in the world could also include King Salman of Saudi Arabia, King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, or Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. However, the highest estimates of the personal net worth for any of these rulers do not exceed $50 billion, meaning their personal fortunes are thought to be less than a quarter of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. But the blurry lines between their personal wealth and the wealth of the nations they rule make giving a definite figure to their net worth difficult.
Are Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk the Richest Men in History?
The answer to the question of whether Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are the richest men in history is clearly more complex than it initially appears. If figures are adjusted for inflation, both possess less than the wealth of John D. Rockefeller. Contemporary and historic rulers may effectively control far more wealth than either Bezos or Musk. But as shown by their forays into space with Blue Origin and SpaceX, Bezos and Musk’s fortunes have likely opened up more possibilities to these two tech billionaires than existed for any other wealthy private individuals in history.