One of history’s richest men, Andrew Carnegie, was worth nearly half a billion dollars at his death in 1919. Adjusted for inflation, his fortune would total more than $90 billion today. His contemporary, John D. Rockefeller, was even wealthier, having amassed holdings worth more than $1.4 billion (between $231 and $330 billion in today’s money) when he died in 1937.
Rockefeller’s fortune accounted for 1/65th of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and was enough (had he been so inclined) to provide every person in America with $10 (a princely sum in a time when steak could be had at $0.20 a pound and a gallon of Rockefeller’s very profitable gasoline was a dime).
Wealthy enough to give old Scrooge McDuck a run for his money, these men and their peers made the tech titans of today seem downright impoverished. Yet even in a world haunted by the twin specters of austerity and sequesters, these latter-day denizens of the financial heights (corporations with empires consisting of silicon and data instead of oil and steel) have managed to amass positively enormous piles of cash.
As the United States economy struggles back from the worst recession since Rockefeller’s era, federal belt-tightening has boosted domestic recovery while the gradual return of consumer confidence has given modern technological megaliths enormous profits.
Collectively, the top five tech companies—Apple, Microsoft, Google, Oracle and Cisco—have a cash surplus of $333 billion, or enough to give every man, woman, and child in the world almost $50. While a collective decision to fork over a “fast fifty” to the entire population of planet Earth is as unlikely as Rockefeller slipping the American people a sawbuck each, it can be diverting to contemplate the potential purchases made possible by such funds. After all, one third of $1 trillion is more than enough cash to educate millions, feed an army, or even buy up an entire city.