Wealthier than Croesus
Let me introduce you to one of the wealthiest people who has ever lived. You.
All of my life I’ve heard the expression, “Richer than Croesus.” He lived about twenty-six centuries ago, but his vast wealth was such that his name remains a byword for wealth and luxury.
I was thinking about him the other day—yes, my mind wanders down strange paths—and I hit on something. Everyone I know is richer than he was.
Think about it. Wherever you are, you are likely sitting in conditioned air. Air conditioning was invented in 1902, and in that year the first modern air conditioner in the history of the world was installed in the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York. Croesus, even with his legendary wealth, had to sweat.
He had no electricity. And why would he? It wasn’t until 1882 that Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Illuminating Company and brought the first lights to Manhattan. But for the next fifty years Americans illuminated their lives with candles and kerosene lamps. And in 1925, only about half of the homes in America had electricity. I bet you have it now.
Inventors were hopping in the early nineteenth century. About three months after old Tom Edison gave us the light bulb, a German named Karl Benz showed the world that he had made the first workable internal combustion engine. And when Henry Ford learned an effective way to make them, American roads—mainly one-lane and dirt and built for horses—were filled with motorcars.
Until the advent of the steam engine, no matter how rich you were you couldn’t travel faster than the wind could blow the sails of a sailing ship. And there was no way to make that speed consistent. On land you couldn’t travel faster than your horse. No matter how poor you are in today’s America, I bet that you’ve driven in a car. Even if you are easing along, you are travelling fast enough to make the richest people in the world jealous not all that long ago.
Around then William Davis invented something for which he never gets enough credit—the refrigerated railroad car. For the first time we could move fresh fruits and vegetables around the country. Before this invention, the furthest you could take your produce was the distance your horse and buggy could travel. George Hammond bought the patent and made a fortune shipping meat.
George and Wilbur Wright, whose life until then had been spent making, repairing, and selling bicycles, decided to take a shot at making a flying machine. On December 17, 1903, their awkward and oddly-shaped flying machine took off in Kill Devils Hill, North Carolina. I’ve stood where they took off and landed, and I was told the story of that first flight by the granddaughter of the man who photographed it.
The first flight was 120 feet. Talk about taking off, but fifty-nine short years later Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space. In only eight years three Americans not only went into space, but they went all of the way to the moon, and two of them walked on it. We went from the first flight to walking on the moon in 66 years. Not bad.
To live in America is to be richer than Croesus imagined. Who among us does not have access to a washing machine, a dryer, canned food, a refrigerator?
We’ve sped from one-lane roads to superhighways in no time at all, and you have free access to them all.
Interested in learning? You have no excuse. Public education is free. And if that is not enough, you can—for free—go to the local public library and check out the best books the greatest minds have ever written. And if your local library does not have what you are looking for, they will get it post haste.
The internet? No one had access to it until such a very short time ago. Can you imagine living without it? There is nothing you can’t learn there. And you can have free access to it.
I could go on. Now that I have you thinking, you’ll come up with dozens of things that not only Croesus, but your very parents, had no access to. And I haven’t even mentioned polio shots to keep you well; penicillin shots to heal your infections; and anesthesia to put you to sleep so you don’t have to bear surgery when you are wide awake.
Greek mythology holds that Croesus, known for his wealth, met Solon, known for his wisdom. Croesus asked Solon whether he had ever encountered anyone more fortunate that he was. Solon, always honest, said that he’d met several. That infuriated Croesus and he demanded to know who they were. Solon described them to him as he explained that the richest men he’d ever met were men who had learned to be happy and satisfied where they were.
So you see, living in America, even if you consider yourself to be poor, you have access to things that Croesus could not have even imagined. And if you are content in your life, you are wealthier and happier than he was by far—no matter your financial condition.