The Greatest Gift of All


On this day in economic and financial history...

Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller furthered his philanthropic legacy beyond all reproach on Dec. 24, 1919, when he donated $100 million. It was, at the time, the single-largest such gift in the history of the world. Adjusted for inflation, the gift would be worth $1.3 billion -- no longer the largest in history, but considering that Rockefeller's single gift amounted to 0.1% of the entire national GDP at the time, it still holds up extremely well.

Half of the $100 million went to the General Education Board to bolster institutions of higher education. The other half went to Rockefeller's self-named foundation, of which $5 million was earmarked for improving Canadian medical schools. Rockefeller had by this point far exceeded the beneficence of fellow arch-capitalist Andrew Carnegie, who had died earlier that year, having given away $350 million throughout his life. Rockefeller's education gifts bear notable similarities to those of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Both Gates and Rockefeller used their resources to push for structural reforms or efficiency gains in the operation of those institutions receiving their money. Rockefeller, however, seems to have earned much less criticism for his reform tactics.

In recent years, Rockefeller's gift was bested for sheer economic heft by that of Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett. The legendary investor-CEO's $37 billion multistage donation, announced in 2006, is not only staggering in size, but also nearly triples Rockefeller's generosity when measured against national GDP. Buffett's gift clocked in at nearly 0.3% of the entire American GDP at the time it was announced.

Rockefeller maintains the upper hand when it comes to aggregate philanthropy, though. By Dec. 24, 1919, he had already donated a total of half a billion dollars, which roughly doubles Buffett's gift as a percentage of American GDP.

In the beginning...
Apollo 8 circled the Moon and gave its pilots the first human glimpse of an earthrise on Dec. 24, 1968. The crew -- Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman -- took the occasion to take a picture and begin a brief television broadcast. The photograph Earthrise is now considered one of the most important photos in history, and the broadcast -- in which the three pilots read from the beginning of the Biblical Book of Genesis -- became at that time the most-watched television broadcast in history.

Put this in your Rolodex
Economist Irving Fisher received a patent for his card-indexing system on Dec. 24, 1912. This system, a predecessor to the Rolodex, was Fisher's most successful business development, and it set him on the path to respectable wealth.

If Irving Fisher doesn't ring a bell, the phrase "permanently high plateau" should jog your memory. Fisher is most famous for extreme bullishness just after the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked in 1929, and his repeated strident pronouncements that investors would not suffer great losses turned him into one of the most famously incorrect market pundits in history. Fisher's optimism during the Crash of 1929 destroyed his reputation and his finances, and he died without ever seeing the Dow reclaim its "plateau" of 1929.

Fisher's greater contribution to the stock market comes from an economic theory he put forward after the Crash of 1929 -- that of debt deflation. It has gained much wider prominence in recent years due to its fairly accurate prediction of the sequence of events following a debt bubble's implosion. Notable publications including The Economist,The New York Times, and Businessweek have said Ben Bernanke's actions as chairman of the Federal Reserve are influenced by Fisher.

Fisher sold his indexing system to Remington-Rand in 1925. That company, through a series of mergers, is now part of Unisys . The Rolodex, which is by now more or less obsolete, is still manufactured by Newell Rubbermaid -- which must be catering to that small subset of elderly Luddite businessmen who still use landline telephones and can't figure out how to turn on their computers.

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