By some argument, using a percentage of GNP, John D. Rockefeller, the oil monopolist who died in 1937, was the richest man in American history; his net worth at its peak was some 2 percent of America’s annual income. Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropic steelmaker who died in 1919, may have been the second wealthiest American, with a similar slice of the GNP.
Bill Gates’ net worth amounts to less than 1 percent of the current national income. An economy that has grown into the trillions of dollars makes it less likely that any individual can own a substantial part of it. That fact alone means Bill Gates will probably never enjoy the political power that Rockefeller and Carnegie wielded at the peaks of their careers.
A third way to compare wealth across time is to look at the ratio between the earnings of the richest people and the earnings of the average citizen. By that calculation, the gap between Bill Gates and the Main Street man or woman is wider than at any time in history. In fact, calculations performed in 2007 suggest that for Bill Gates, $350,000 spent to buy a Lamborghini, for instance, would be the equivalent for the average American to spending 73 cents.