Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Rockefeller, John D. 1839-1937, from Dictionary of Energy

U.S. industrialist and philanthropist, generally regarded as the founder of the modern oil and gas industry. At its peak, his Standard Oil company controlled about 90% of oil refining in the U.S. This and other business activities made him reputedly the world’s richest man, and the name “Rockefeller” became a symbol for wealth.

Summary Article: Rockefeller, John D(avison) (1839–1937)
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US millionaire industrialist and philanthropist. He was the founder of Standard Oil in 1870, from which were descended four of the world's largest oil companies – Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil. He also founded the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, to which his son John D(avison) Rockefeller Jr devoted his life. Rockefeller created the first great corporate trust, Standard Oil Trust, which achieved control of 90% of US refineries by 1882. Its activities led to an outcry against monopolies and the passing of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Standard Oil was finally broken up in 1911.

Following the discovery of oil reserves in Pennsylvania, in 1862 Rockefeller went into the oil-refining business with partners, including US chemist Samuel Andrews who had invented a method of refining crude petroleum. In 1865 Rockefeller bought out the other partners for $72,000 to form Rockefeller & Andrews, which was incorporated as the Standard Oil Company in 1870 with an initial capital of $1 million. By 1872 the company controlled nearly all the Cleveland oil-refining businesses through an association called the South Improvement Company, which enabled the company to negotiate favourable rates on oil shipments with the railroad companies. It also forced smaller refiners out of business if they did not belong to the association, although many had already sold out to Standard Oil. An Ohio court ruling of 1892 prompted the dissolution of the trust, only for it to be re-founded in 1899 as a holding company. In 1911, the US Supreme Court found that Standard Oil had continued to act as a monopoly and ordered it to be broken up.

At its peak Rockefeller's personal wealth was estimated at nearly $1 billion. He contributed more than $500 million to charitable organizations, universities, and churches.

Rockefeller was born on a farm at Richford, near New York, the second of six children. The family moved to Ohio in 1853 where he attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio (and joined the Baptist church and later became a trustee). Leaving school in 1855, he took a business course at Folsom Mercantile College and was then employed as a bookkeeper at the age of 16 at Hewitt & Tuttle, a small firm of agricultural commission merchants. Rockefeller formed his first partnership with English businessman Maurice Clark, with $2,000 in 1859, only to leave three years later.

By 1872 Rockefeller had vertically integrated Standard Oil's processes of production (such as a cooper shop manufacturing wooden barrels) and distribution (storage and warehousing). By 1878 Standard Oil owned major refineries in New York, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In 1882, Rockefeller merged the businesses into a single company, Standard Oil Trust, under the control of a board of nine trustees, with himself at the head. After the Ohio court ruling, Rockefeller reorganized Standard into 20 businesses, transferring its properties to companies in other states with cross-holding directors so that the same nine trustees still controlled its operation. In 1899 Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) became the new holding company for all of Standard Oil (permitted by New Jersey state law).

Rockefeller stepped down from day-to-day management in 1896 and retired as the president of Standard Oil after the Supreme Court ruling. In addition to Standard Oil, Rockefeller owned mines and timberland, and held interests in numerous manufacturing and transport companies. He founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901 (now the Rockefeller University).


Rockefeller, John D, Jr: Address on His Family's Creed

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article John D. Rockefeller
BUSINESS: The Ultimate Resource

In the course of his long life, U.S. industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), the son of a farmer, progressed from being an office boy earning

Full text Article John D. Rockefeller American industrialist, and the world’s first dollar billionaire
QFinance: The Ultimate Resource

1839Born in Richford, New York. 1855Started work at Hewitt & Tuttle. 1859Founded Rockefeller, Andrews, & Flagler. 1862Entered oil-refini

Full text Article John Rockefeller Sr.
The Almanac of American Philanthropy

After starting life in humble circumstances, John Rockefeller came to dominate the burgeoning petroleum industry by the time he was 40 years old.

See more from Credo