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On Thursday, for a few hours, Jeff Bezos became America's richest person—and, for that matter, the world's—by leapfrogging past Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
While a drop in Amazon stock sent him back down to second place later in the day, the brief appearance has placed him in an exclusive club of men who have held the title of America's richest.
Money set out to track down all the members of that club, with the help of The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates — A ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther. In their 1996 book, the authors tallied the wealthiest ever Americans, comparing them across eras by calculating their estimated worth at death as a share of U.S. gross national product at the time.
By this measure, John D. Rockefeller comes in the richest American of all time, despite having had non-inflation-adjusted wealth of $1.4 billion — well below the $22 billion Walmart's Sam Walton had gathered by the time of the book's publication. Rockefeller's wealth amounted to 1/65 of the nation's GNP at the time of his death, compared with Walton's 1/275.
There are some gaps in the data: Klepper and Gunther set out to count the 100 wealthiest individuals in history, and there were times in the 19th century when America's wealthiest weren't wealthy enough to make that cut. Also, because the authors don't specify when each of these men gained his wealth, we assumed that they had the same relative wealth for the last 20 years of their life — so, for instance, since Henry Ford ranks higher than Robert Wood Johnson Jr. overall, we assumed that Johnson didn't become the richest man in America until after Ford's death.
Here's the resulting list, leading up to Gates:
1779-1799: Elias Hasket Derby
Sea merchant; first to begin extensive trade with China; known as America's first millionaire. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/515 of U.S. GNP.
1828-1848: John Jacob Astor
Fur trader turned real estate developer; helped build the foundations of modern New York City. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/107 of U.S. GNP.
1848-1850: John McDonogh
Southern land holder and slave owner; known for endowing schools in New Orleans and Baltimore. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/1,278 of U.S. GNP.
1857-1877: Cornelius Vanderbilt
America's most successful railroad baron. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/87 of U.S. GNP.
1877-1892: Jay Gould
The last of America's railroad barons. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/185 of U.S. GNP.
1892-1917: Andrew Carnegie
Industrialist and philanthropist. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/166 of U.S. GNP.
1917-1937: J.D. Rockefeller
Oil magnate and real estate developer. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/65 of U.S. GNP.
1937-1947: Henry Ford
Auto inventor. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/231 of U.S. GNP.
1947-1968: Robert Wood Johnson Jr.
Chairman of Johnson & Johnson, the diversified consumer and pharma company founded by his father. Received large government contracts during WWII. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/864 of U.S. GNP.
1968-1976: J. Paul Getty
Oil tycoon. Relative wealth: 1/893 of U.S. GNP.
1976-1992: Sam Walton
Founder of Walmart. Estimated net worth at time of death: 1/532 of U.S. GNP.
1992-1995: Warren Buffett
Founder of Berkshire Hathaway. 1995 estimated net worth: 1/532 of U.S. GNP.
1995-2017: Bill Gates
Founder of Microsoft. Current estimated net worth: 1/208 of U.S. GNP.
This post has been updated.