The world’s richest are seldom out of the headlines, if only because they’re one of the few categories of people on earth that can commit to the truly spectacular.
The “space race” contested by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos (or SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin) is a good example, not least because there have been as many failures as successes on the launch pad.
Of course, the one thing behind this bombastic race is money, a metric that Forbes magazine has quantified since 1982.
The now-annual Forbes Rich List (or Forbes 400) was first created by the man himself, Malcolm Forbes, with the assistance of Harold Seneker.
Seneker, at the behest of his editor, did most of the work for the inaugural List by traveling across the United States in search of anybody wealthy and famous. At the time, people with assets worth more than $100m were eligible to become one of the Forbes 400.
Today’s List, which is topped by Musk at $251bn, largely due to income from SpaceX and car manufacturer Tesla, needs a bank account with at least $1.7bn squirreled away.
That latter figure is just $0.1bn short of the largest Powerball jackpot ever paid out in the United States – or worldwide, as it’s now possible to play Powerball online in Ireland by betting on the outcome of the US draw. The Powerball has produced seven such jackpots, none of which would qualify the winner for the Forbes Rich List.
The ‘poorest’ person on the List is Daniel Sundheim, a hedge fund manager with a personal wealth of $2.9bn. He’s also one of the youngest billionaires present, at just 46 years of age.
There are more differences than total wealth between the first and most recent Lists. In 1982, just thirteen people were featured on the Rich List, with the top spot going to the late shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig.
Ludwig’s fortunes in business might seem a little strange today, especially given how the world’s richest in the 21st century (there are 2,640 billionaires in the world) seem to have nearly inexhaustible sums of money.
The 81-year-old Daniel Ludwig was described as “our only remaining billionaire” by the Washington Post in 1978, in an article that also wondered if the Michigander was “short of cash”. He had recently begun selling his hotel properties.
Shipping and similarly traditional industries no longer feature at the top of the Forbes Rich List. Eight of the top 12 positions go to people from the tech industry, including famous faces like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), and Steve Ballmer (Microsoft).
As for Malcolm Forbes himself, the entrepreneur gained much of his wealth through publishing and, later, real estate. He was also a well-known eccentric, at least in terms of the things he used to collect, including 12 imperial eggs by Faberge and several hot air balloons.
Today, with a maximum wealth of $1bn, he wouldn’t rank on his own list.