John Davison Rockefeller Sr.: The richest man in history

On this day, July 8 in the year 1839, the founder of Standard Oil Company was born in New York, USA. His name was John Davison Rockefeller Sr., who is considered as the richest man in history.

John D. Rockefeller Sr.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Credit: britannica.com)

John was the eldest son with 5 siblings. His father was a travelling salesman of exotic medicines which he promoted as elixirs. Since his father was absent at home most of time, young John had to help the family not only in household chores but more importantly in finance. He sold candies, potatoes, and whatever thing available. He even lent small sums of money to his neighbors and friends. His father taught him to always get the better part in any deal.

At Folsom’s Commercial College in Cleveland, Ohio, John took a ten-week course in bookkeeping. At 16, he started working as an office clerk with starting salary of 50 cents a day. Four years later, he started his own business doing commission work. This was in 1859, the year the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. Four more years and John and some partners set up their own oil refining company in Cleveland. In 1864, he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant and politician.

In 1865, John borrowed money to buy out some of his partners in the refining business which by then became the largest in Cleveland. In 1870, he formed the Standard Oil Company with himself as the largest shareholder. In the succeeding years, his company purchased his competitors to form the first business trust and vertically integrated all operations from drilling to refining and distribution. At its peak, it controlled 90% of the oil business in the United States. In 1911, the trust was broken up due to the implementation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Although John was often criticized as a greedy monopolist, he was actually a devout Christian. In his youth, he acted as a janitor and Sunday school teacher in his local church. He followed John Wesley’s dictum, “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”. As a philanthropist, he put up the Rockefeller Foundation as a conduit for donating money to causes such as the establishment of universities and other learning centers around the world.

Today, his descendants are active in business and politics all over the United States. The major oil companies like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips, all traced their history to the former Standard Oil Company.

John died of arteriosclerosis in 1937 at age 97. He never drank any alcoholic drink nor smoke cigarette. He had 4 daughters and a son with his only wife Laura. At the time of his death, his net worth was estimated at 1.5% of the national wealth of the US as measured by GDP. In today’s dollar, this is valued at around $340 billion which is more than twice the net worth of Jeff Bezos, the current richest billionaire in the world.

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