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The Richest People in Human History - Part 1

The Richest People in Human History

(Up until the Industrial Revolution)

Click here for a larger, more legible version of the infographic that you can explore in-depth.

When we think of wealth today, we often think of the massive personal fortunes of business magnates like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Warren Buffett. However, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that measuring wealth by one’s bank account has been a norm for the world’s richest.

For most of recorded human history, in fact, the lines around wealth were quite blurred. Leaders like Augustus Caesar or Emperor Shenzong had absolute control of their empires – while bankers like Jakob Fogger and Cosimo de Medici were often found pulling the strings from behind.

This infographic focuses on the richest people in history up until the Industrial Revolution – and in the coming weeks, we will release a second version that covers wealth from then onwards (including figures like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jeff Bezos, etc.).

Is This List of People Definitive?

While it is certainly fun to speculate on the wealth of people from centuries past, putting together this list is exceptionally difficult and certainly not definitive.

Here’s why:

Firstly, much wealth in early periods is tied to land (Genghis Khan) or entire empires (Augustus, Akbar), which makes calculations extremely subjective. What is most of Asia’s land worth in the year 1219? What separates personal fortune from the riches of an empire that one has full control of? There are a wide variety of answers to these questions, and they all influence the figures chosen to be represented.

Secondly, records kept from Ancient eras are scarce, exaggerated, or based on legends and oral histories. Think of King Solomon or Mansa Musa – these are characters described as immeasurably rich, so trying to put their wealth in modern context is fun, but certainly not guaranteed to be historically accurate.

Lastly, wealth and conversion rates can be approached in different ways as well. Take Crassus in the Roman Republic, who had a peak fortune of “200 million sesterces”. Well, that’s a problem for us in modernity, because that stash could be worth anywhere from $200 million to $169.8 billion, depending on how calculations are done.

So, enjoy this list of the wealthiest historical figures, but keep in mind that it is mostly for fun – and that the list of the wealthiest people in history changes depending on who you ask!

About the Money Project

The Money Project uses intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.

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38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar

38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

We’ve previously showed you 31 Fascinating Facts About the Dollar’s Early History, which highlighted the history of U.S. currency before the 20th century. This was a very interesting period in which we looked at the money used by the first colonists, the extreme bust of the Continental currency, the era of privately-issued bank notes, and Congress’ emergency issuance of the fiat “greenback” during the Civil War.

However, the modern era of the U.S. dollar is just as interesting. We have it starting in 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed by Woodrow Wilson. Not only did it establish a new central bank, but it also gave the Fed the authority to issue the Federal Reserve Note, which is now the dominant form of U.S. currency both domestically and abroad.

A New Legal Tender

Leading up to the 20th century, there were four main forms of U.S. currency being used:

  • Gold and silver coins
  • Gold and silver certificates
  • Commercial bank notes, issued by private banks and backed by government bonds
  • “Greenbacks”, a fiat currency declared legal by Congress to help fund the Civil War

In 1913, however, the Federal Reserve Note was authorized as U.S. currency. The new notes were supposed to be backed by gold or other “lawful money”, based on the stipulations of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

However, this only lasted about 20 years. By the time of the Great Depression, the Fed considered itself to be in a tight spot. It simply did not have enough gold to back all Federal Reserve Notes and Gold Certificates in circulation, and at the same time wanted flexibility with monetary policy to fight deflation and unemployment.

In 1933, the Emergency Banking Act was passed by President Roosevelt, and Executive Order 6102 was also signed. The latter move famously criminalized monetary gold, and ended the gold standard.

After all, if gold can’t be legally owned, it can’t be legally redeemed.

Modern Paper Money

After a brief return to a pseudo gold standard after WWII, Nixon severed all remaining ties between gold and money in 1971. Since then, U.S. money has been purely fiat, and backed by the government rather than any physical commodity or precious metal.

Some facts on today’s paper money:

  • There is $1.54 trillion of U.S. currency in circulation, and 97% of that is Federal Reserve Notes
  • Over two-thirds of all $100 bills are held outside the U.S.
  • Dollar bills can be folded at least 8,000 times, which is 20x more than a normal sheet of paper
  • That’s because dollar bills are made of a special 75% cotton and 25% linen blend, patented by Crane & Co.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces 38 million notes every day, worth $541 million
  • The two facilities, located in Washington, D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas use 9.7 tons of ink per day
  • For 2017, the Fed ordered 7.1 billion new notes, worth $209 billion
  • More than 70% of these notes are used to replace damaged ones
  • Notes with smaller denominations ($1, $5, $10) tend to last for shorter periods of time, due to more frequent usage


The coins used today are similar to U.S. Federal Reserve Notes in that their face values tend to greatly exceed their intrinsic values.

This is because cheaper metals such as copper, zinc, and nickel are used instead of gold or silver.

  • The average lifespan of a coin is 25 years, according to the U.S. Mint
  • It’s estimated that Americans throw away around $62 million of coins every year
  • In 2016, the U.S. Mint produced 16 trillion coins, valued at over $1.09 billion
  • The amount of copper in a penny has fluctuated over the years. It ranges from 0% (in WWII, pennies were made of steel so copper could be used for ammunition) to 95%.
  • Today’s pennies are 2.5% copper, with the remainder being 97.5% zinc

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31 Fascinating Facts on the Early History of the U.S. Dollar

31 Fascinating Facts on the Early History of the U.S. Dollar

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

Today, we all know the U.S. dollar as an iconic currency that is recognizable to people around the world.

And while we’ve previously looked at the buying power of the U.S. dollar over time, as well as important events like the Great Depression, we have not looked at the history of the dollar itself.

How and why was it conceived, and why do we call it a “dollar” or a “buck”? How did the dollar’s early history help to shape today’s world?

Before the Dollar

For the early colonists, currency was a bit of a free-for-all.

Officially, cash was denominated in pounds, shillings, and pence, but in reality things were a different story. Cash was often scarce, and colonists needed to be innovative to fulfill transactions. At various points in time, they used tobacco, beaver skins, and wampum in the place of money. Some colonies even tried to issue their own fiat currencies – many of which went bust.

As it turned out, the Spanish dollar was often the most abundant form of cash – and this is what led to U.S. currency eventually being denominated in dollars.

The Revolution

During the American Revolution in 1775, the Continental Congress issued a money known as the Continental Currency to try and fund the war. The government printed too many, and the value of a Continental diminished rapidly.

Just five years later, after runaway inflation, the Continental was worth 2.5% of its face value. Benjamin Franklin rightly noted that the depreciation of the Continental had, in fact, acted as a tax to pay for the war. Holders of the currency – everyday people – were punished by losing massive amounts of buying power. Interestingly, this is where we get the phrase “Not worth a Continental”.

Birth of the Dollar

The failure of the Continental Currency must have been top of mind during the writing of the Constitution. A clause was even added, under Article 1, Section 10, to make sure such a failure would never happen again. It was written that states were not permitted to “coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; [or] make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.”

And so, the Coinage Act of 1792 created the U.S. dollar as a standard unit of currency. The U.S. Mint was authorized to oversee coinage, and the Act also established a penalty of death for debasing coinage issued by the Mint.

The Almighty Buck

In the 19th Century, a new slang term emerged for the dollar.

Especially in the Great Lakes area, different amounts of money were equated with animal skins. One particular reference showed that in Ohio in 1851, the skin of a muskrat was worth $0.25, and that of a doe was worth $0.50. Meanwhile, the skin of a buck was equal to the “almighty dollar” – and hence, the word “buck” became synonymous with the U.S. dollar.

The Civil War

Leading up to the Civil War, private banks around the country issued their own paper currencies.

With 10,000 or so of these currencies in circulation as the war broke out, governments soon found it very cumbersome to try and pay debts with many different types of notes. As a result, the $10 Demand Note was the first official paper currency issued in 1861 by the government to help finance the war.

The North began paying debts with a fiat currency called the “greenback”, while Confederate states issued their own paper currency as well. The latter was worthless by the time the Confederacy lost the war.

The Counterfeiting Problem

Around this time, counterfeiting was a widespread problem with greenbacks and all the private notes that were circulating. More than 1/3 of bills were fake at this time.

Sophisticated counterfeit operations were happening in British Canada, and some bank engravers would even moonlight as counterfeiters, using the same plates and dyes they had from their day job.

To deal with the problem, the Secret Service was formed in 1865.

The Modern Dollar

Counterfeiting measures have come a long way since the late 19th century. Today, it’s estimated that less than 0.01% of notes are fake.

Learn more about the modern U.S. dollar in the next part of this series.

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