Last Thursday, 2nd August 2018, Apple became the first US company to be worth one trillion dollars by market capitalisation. This is in the land of brain melting numbers as one trillion dollars is beyond the realms of most people's imagination and to write out the value $1,000,000,000,000 looks almost nonsensical.
This is the kind of thing which is noteworthy but not unexpected because anyone following the financial pages of a daily newspaper would have seen this with the rolling inevitability of the all stations train arriving at the next scheduled stop. The only real mystery in this financial guessing game was who would get there first, as both Wal-Mart and Amazon were close to the number which only has any significance because of our base ten number system.
While there is a kind of hoo-haa to be made about this, this isn't the first company to get to that number. The appropriately named Chinese petrochemical company Petro-China, reached the one trillion US Dollar mark back in 2007 but the Chinese government stripped back a lot of the value and it fell back to 260 million dollars by mid 2008.
The list of the companies to hit the various numerical milestones in corporate history is a short but interesting jaunt through how the US economy has changed. A man much wiser than I once said that where your treasure lies, there your heart will lie also, and the story of these milestones absolutely reflects what the US economy has valued by attaching actual values to those companies.
$1B - 1901 - US Steel ($98.37bn adj)
When you adjust for inflation, it ends up being Rockefeller who is the richest man who ever lived. Even King Solomon with a stated income of 666 talents of gold in a year is eclipsed by that top group of players in the English Premier League in terms of annual incomes. In the case of Rockefeller, he and his family just happened to really closely hold Standard Oil.
US Steel though was a slightly different story. It was a fairly broadly held share and in 1901 was the biggest producer of the new fangled and highly useful metal. The things that drove the demand for steel were then as now, the demand to build machinery and buildings. The invention of the skyscraper was only made possible because steel could be made in sufficient quantities and it was the former railway bridge builders who applied their skills from the horizontal to the vertical.
What US Steel represents is a nation which was building itself into the industrial powerhouse of the twentieth century. Before the skyscraper, the highest height that buildings would normally go to was about ten stories. With bones of steel instead of stone, they almost trebled in height within a generation.
$10B - 1955 - General Motors ($118.33bn adj)
The world had just been through two world wars and the machines of industry which had formerly turned out weapons of war were now turning out consumerist weapons of peace. General Motors which had been coagulating and acquiring smaller motor manufacturers, found itself in a unique place.
The former CEO of General Motors, Charles Erwin Wilson, had been newly appointed as the US Defense Secretary. Starting in 1955, the US Government embarked upon the biggest public infrastructure project in the history of the world in the Eisenhower Interstate Defense Highway System.
I don't think it coincidence that the former CEO of GM should be in charge of implementing a program which would benefit GM. That in no way reeks of corruption and grift. It's just that General Motors ended up with all of these lovely roads all over the United States that they could sell cars which could be driven on them.
What's good for the country is good for general motors, and vice versa.
- Charles Erwin Wilson
$100B - 1985 - IBM ($364.83bn adj)
"Big Blue" had previously been a producer of typewriters, then mainframe computers and then became the default standard when it introduced the IBM 5150 Personal Computer in 1981. This more or less marks the beginning of proper computers in people's homes; instead of the television based consoles that existed in the late '70s and early '80s. Within the decade, I knew of several people who had computers in their house and DOS 1.0 was very quickly eclipsed by DOS 2.0 and Dos 3.3
I suspect that the reason why IBM arrived at the centre of the computer business was because of the things that they invented which helped business. The arrival of the hard disk drive and DRAM basically meant that you didn't have to rely on magnetic tape and computers could live in self-contained boxes, and magnetic stripe cards and the UPC bar code basically run the world of consumer money and inventory tracking. If you bought something today and didn't use cash, then you will have used a card and the goods will have been barcoded - both of which were invented by IBM.
$500B - 1999 - Microsoft ($1053.42bn adj)
After the revolution which saw IBM put computers everywhere, Microsoft's financial empire was built on making them useful to the office. Microsoft's operating systems, firstly with DOS and then Windows, was then given a suite of programs which people found useful; primarily the Office Suite. Word, Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint, and Access, primarily changed offices from places where people pushed paper, to places where paper became secondary.
Particuarly the way in which Word, Excel, and Outlook, work together, is the bulk of the reason why Microsoft of why Bill Gates' vision of "A computer on every desk and in every home” was kind of realised. It also explains why Microsoft as a company had a tangible end to its empire.
That figure of $1053.42bn is bigger when you adjust for inflation, than Apple's $1000.00bn which it reached last week.
On that note, Apple might have hit the magical $1 trillion mark but it is still a minnow when compared to the mega-über-super-psycho-massive companies which were given monopoly trading powers over whole nations and continents in the past.
The truth is that the Dutch East India Company was valued at 78 million Dutch Guilders, which translates to a mind-numblingly insane $7.9 trillion when adjusted for inflation, the Mississippi Company which was started in France to control Louisiana was worth $6.5 trillion, and the South Sea Company was worth the equivalent of $4.3 trillion adjusted for inflation.
Apple is massive but it's not even close to the biggest company in either recent or all time history. A trillion dollars is nothing to be sneezed at though.