On Monday, Elon Musk ended the day with a net worth of $335 billion. He is by far the richest person in the world, topping the #2 person – Jeff Bezos – by around $140 billion. With those numbers in mind, here's a statement that some people will find controversial:
If Elon Musk's net worth increases by $5 billion + one dollar, he will be the richest person in history.
In other words, if at some point in the future we see Elon sitting on a personal fortune of $340 billion (plus $1) he will be the richest human being who has ever walked the earth.
Why is that statement controversial? Two reasons:
#1: The Richest Person in Modern History?
Thanks at least partially to an article I personally wrote back in 2012, most people generally agree that the richest person in modern history is Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller.
Rockefeller is certifiably the first person to ever achieve an actual-value (aka not inflation-adjusted or estimated) personal fortune of $1 billion. His net worth peaked at $1.5 billion. At the time of his death in 1937 he was worth around $900 million because he made large wealth transfers to his own philanthropic foundation in his last decade.
Now, if you use an inflation-adjustment calculator with the number $1.5 billion and the approximate year 1935, you land on around $30 billion. So how is John D. considered the richest person ever?
If you re-calculate Rockefeller's net worth taking into account his wealth as a percentage of American GDP plus various other factors (like being on the gold standard at the time), it's not unscientific to drastically boost Rockefeller's estimated present net worth equivalent. Generally, the most common number historians use for John D. Rockefeller's inflation-adjusted net worth is…
Using that number, Elon Musk is $5 billion (plus $1) away from being the richest person in modern history. Elon has already surpassed Andrew Carnegie's inflation-adjusted $310 billion fortune that stood as the second-largest fortune in modern history for a little over 100 years.
So why is my original statement controversial? Because some would say that it's been nearly a decade since our estimate of $340 billion was published. Today you can find estimates that peg Rockefeller's inflation-adjusted net worth as high as $400 billion.
Wikipedia's list of the wealthiest historical figures places John D. Rockefeller at #1 with a wealth range of $318 – $420 billion. Though, one major red flag for Wikipedia's list is it doesn't even include Elon Musk…
So who could buy more things in their lifetime? A guy in 1935 who had $1.5 billion? Or a guy in 2021 who has $300+ billion? It's extremely difficult to say, but I'm going to stick with the generally accepted estimate of $340 billion. That means Elon Musk is $5 billion (plus $1) away from being the richest person ever. And for what it's worth… not that I like referring to them but… Forbes has already declared Elon as the richest person in history.
#2: The Richest Person in Human History?
The second reason my earlier statement might be considered controversial is because there are several historical figures outside of modern history who were extremely wealthy.
For example, how do you calculate the modern-equivalent of William the Conqueror's net worth? William, who lived from 1028 to 1087, earned unimaginable wealth invading and subsequently seizing pretty much all of England back in 1066. The inflation-adjusted number you typically see for William the Conqueror is $300 billion.
Then there's Mansa Musa.
Mansa Musa. Also known as Musa I of Mali, he was born about 200 years after William the Conqueror's death. When he became the 10th emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa proceeded to establish the world's most-lucrative salt and gold production systems.
When we published our first estimate of Mansa Musa's net worth in 2012, we pegged his modern-equivalent fortune at $400 billion. That would easily secure his place as the richest human who ever lived.
Rudolph Ware, a professor of history at the University of Michigan explained to CNN back in 2015 that Musa's wealth was so immense that people of the time struggled to describe his riches. As Rudolph put it:
"This is the richest guy anyone has ever seen. There are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of cold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it. That's what all the accounts are trying to communicate."
On the other hand…
It's nearly impossible to accurately peg the wealth of someone who lived 700 years ago. It's equally difficult to adjust that fortune to a modern equivalent.
Then there's King Solomon.
Every time we write an article about the richest people of all time, someone chimes in over email to complain that we didn't put King Solomon at #1. If you believe the biblical legend of King Solomon, he was the richest human being of all time, worth the modern equivalent of trillions of dollars.
Here's the problem with King Solomon: There's actually no factual evidence that he ever existed. It is simply not 100% factual that there was ever an actual King Solomon or that he had any wealth, at all. If he did exist, there's definitely not any solid evidence that his fortune was actually large enough to make him the wealthiest human being of all time.
A British historian named Ralph Ellis has been studying the legend of King Solomon for over thirty years. He believes the legend is a complete myth. Ellis believes Solomon is an amalgamation of several Egyptian pharaohs, perhaps most specifically a pharaoh called Shoshenq I, who was the ruler of Egypt and Israel in the 10th century BC. That's 1,000 years before Jesus walked the earth.
A different British historian, named Kenneth Kitchen, does believe Solomon existed. Kitchen calculates that Solomon might have accumulated an inflation-adjusted fortune of $20 billion. A very impressive fortune no doubt, but clearly not enough to make him the richest human being of all time.
We will be keeping an eye on Elon's fortune and we'll let you know if he officially becomes the richest person of all time!