Since 1987 we’ve been tracking the world’s wealthiest people. Globalization and technology of the 1980s pulled once distant corners of the planet much closer, inspiring a list–the first of its kind–to capture a picture of world’s richest in one place. “National boundaries still satisfy politicians,” the 1987 introduction to the first list stated. “But they no longer contain business people.”
Our inaugural edition counted only 140 billionaire individuals and families from just 24 countries. At the time, Japan was home to both the world’s richest man, real estate tycoon Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, and more billionaires than any other country besides the U.S. This year? We have a record 2,043 billionaires from 71 countries and territories. The U.S. still holds the most, but now China comes in second, and Bill Gates has held the title of World’s Richest Man for 18 of the last 23 years.
Each year’s list has served as a time capsule for the wealthiest capitalists. Their fortunes have ebbed and flowed with global economic forces. Over decades, Asia’s century gave way to the Asia crisis; the internet boom created unprecedented wealth that years later still hasn’t been replicated.
The 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc on hundreds. For others, wealth has been only fleeting, less so because of global turbulence and more due to specific miscalculations. James Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, founders of Research in Motion, which makes BlackBerry cellphones, joined as billionaires in 2007, but dropped off by 2012.
Elizabeth Holmes was featured as world’s youngest self-made female billionaire in 2015, thanks to a venture round she raised at a sky high valuation. She fell off this year, amid allegations that the global blood-testing company Theranos’ products didn’t work as advertised. Then there is the spectacular fall of Eike Batista, once the 7th richest person in the world. His fortune plummeted from $30 billion to $300 million in 2014 after his Brazilian oil exploration firm declared bankruptcy.
Still there are those whose fortunes have stood the test of time: 19 super billionaires debuted on the 1987 list who are still alive today and still securely in the ranks. That includes legendary businesspeople with huge staying power and enormous influence like Warren Buffett and Li Ka-shing. David Rockefeller was among this group until his death in March 2017.
Thirty years later, a comment from our inaugural issue continues to hold true: “How someone managed to make or hold a billion dollars is likely to tell you something about how the world works.”
Follow along with some of the biggest milestones below.
Total Net Worth: $295 billion
Just 20 people have been on every World’s Billionaires List since 1987. Among them: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Li Kashing, H. Ross Perot Sr. and Lilaine Bettencourt.
Total Net Worth: $338 billion
Three Columbian drug lords, including Pablo Escobar, make the list with cocaine fueled fortunes of more than $5 billion each.
Total Net Worth: $435 billion
New York real estate titans the Durst family are worth $1 billion. More than two decades later, estranged heir Robert Durst, the subject of the HBO series, “The Jinx,” is arrested for murder.
Total Net Worth: $542 billion
After two years on the Billionaires list, Donald Trump, facing bankruptcy, drops off.
Total Net Worth: $582 billion
Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helu debuts at $1.7 billion; 19 years later, he is the world’s richest man ($53.5 billion).
Total Net Worth: $602 billion
Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton dies at 74; his family’s net worth is $18.5 billion. Today, Walton’s heirs are worth a combined $118.6 billion.
Total Net Worth: $565 billion
Deals with American icons such as Anheuser-Busch and Sara Lee help create 7 new Mexican billionaires, bringing the country’s total to 13. You’ll find 15 in 2017.
Total Net Worth: $762 billion
Africa’s first billionaire is South Africa’s Harry Oppenheimer, a gold-and-diamonds magnate.
Total Net Worth: $892 billion
Bill Gates begins his reign as the world’s richest. He’s the first on our list to be No. 1 who isn’t from Japan.
Total Net Worth: $1.1 trillion
The 1980s are well and truly over, as the number of Japanese billionaires peaks at 41. There are 33 today.
Total Net Worth: $1.2 trillion
Dawn of the oligarchs: Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vagit Alekperov and Rem Viakhirev are Russia’s first 4 billionaires. There are 96 this year.
Total Net Worth: $1.1 trillion
After the ’97 Asian financial crisis, bird flu and more, Asia’s average billionaire is $300 million poorer.
Total Net Worth: $819 billion
A new billionaire is born: Ty Warner profits from the global Beanie Babies craze.
Total Net Worth: $898 billion
Oracle shares rocket more than 500%, making Larry Ellison No. 2, worth $47 billion.
Total Net Worth: $1.8 trillion
Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson is the first ever African-American billionaire. He dropped off the Billionares list in 2009.
Total Net Worth: $1.5 trillion
Eighty-three billionares drop off in the wake of the dot-com crash, Yahoo cofounders Jerry Yang and David Filo among them.
Total Net Worth: $1.3 trillion
Oprah Winfrey becomes the first female African-American billionaire.
Total Net Worth: $1.9 trillion
Barely 30 years old, Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page make the list.
Total Net Worth: $2.2 trillion
Martha Stewart debuts on the list the same month she’s freed from jail after serving five months for obstruction of justice.
Total Net Worth: $2.6 trillion
Hind Hariri, daughter of assassinated Lebanon prime minister Rafik Hariri, joins as the youngest member at 22.
Total Net Worth: $3.5 trillion
Japan’s Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the world’s richest man on our inaugural list, drops off entirely.
Total Net Worth: $4.4 trillion
Warren Buffet, worth $62 billion, overtakes Bill Gates $58 billion) to become the world’s richest person.
Total Net Worth: $2.4 trillion
In the wake of the global financial crisis, billionaires shed $2 trillion in net worth; our list has 30% fewer billionaires than the year before.
Total Net Worth: $3.6 trillion
Warren Buffet and Bill Gates announce the Giving Pledge, a promise to give the majority of wealth to philanthropic causes. Since then 157 have pledged, most of them billionaires.
Total Net Worth: $4.5 trillion
Moscow becomes the billionaire capital of the world: 79 of them call it home, more than any other city.
Total Net Worth: $4.6 trillion
Elon Musk, impresario of electric cars, solar power and reusable rockets, makes his first appearance on the list.
Total Net Worth: $5.4 trillion
Isabel Dos Santos, the oldest daughter of Angola’s longtime president, becomes the richest woman in Africa ($2 billion).
Total Net Worth: $6.4 trillion
Busted: Brazilian Eike Batista’s net worth drops from $30 billion to $300 million after his oil exploration firm, OGX, declares bankruptcy.
Total Net Worth: $7.1 trillion
His Airness, Michael Jordan, worth $1 billion, springs aboard.
Total Net Worth: $6.5 trillion
The world’s first “drone billionaires” hail from China: Frank Wang, Lu Di and Swift Xie.
Total Net Worth: $7.7 trillion
Self-made women now make up 2.7% of global billionaires; a decade ago, they were just 1% of the total.