John D. Rockefeller
What it is:
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the founder of Standard Oil Company and became one of the world's wealthiest people. Widely regarded as the richest person in American history, Rockefeller's net worth reached a peak of nearly $340 billion (in today's dollars, adjusted for inflation) in 1913.
How it works/Example:
John D. Rockefeller was born in upstate New York and got into the oil business in 1863 after investing in a refinery in Ohio. In 1870, he started Standard Oil, which only a decade later came to control about 90% of the country's refineries and pipelines. In 1911, the Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of anti-trust laws and dissolved it.
Standard Oil fractured into 34 separate entities that eventually became ExxonMobil, Conoco, Chevron and Amoco. Rockefeller had already retired from Standard Oil in 1897, but he still held about a quarter of the company's stock by 1911. Because the pieces of the fractured Standard Oil became worth more than the whole, Rockefeller became the country's first billionaire.
Rockefeller's fortune became worth nearly 2% of the American economy at one point. In 1913, he started the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped create the Yellow Fever vaccine and eradicate hookworm disease in the U.S. Rockefeller and his descendants also helped establish the University of Chicago, founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later renamed Rockefeller University), helped start the United Service Organizations (USO), gave $5 million to start the Lincoln Center in New York City, helped restore Colonial Williamsburg and funded the Museum of Modern Art. They also donated $8 million to purchase the 16 acres of land on which the United Nations (U.N.) sits in New York City.
Why it matters:
John D. Rockefeller is one of America's most famous businesspeople and was a titan in the oil business. His wealth and business acumen are still studied today, and Standard Oil's power in the oil industry helped spawn the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. Though Rockefeller gave away more than $500 million of his fortune, his family's wealth has lasted for generations.