How Much is a TRILLION?
On 2 August 2018, Apple became the first publicly traded U.S company to reach a market cap of $1 trillion. Two years later its value had doubled to over $2 trillion, and less than 18 months after that it briefly broke through the $3 trillion mark, before dropping back below it.
Other tech behemoths are not far behind with their eye-watering market caps. Microsoft, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon are all currently worth more than $1 trillion. 1
Who's the richest person you know? Is it your boss, with the flashy car, the shiny shoes and the garlic breath? Or your friend's parents with the pool and the pony and the endless hushed arguments?
Who is the richest person on Earth?
According to the Forbes rich list, the richest person on Earth is entrepreneur and business magnate, Elon Musk. Dude's worth $275bn. 4 Let's put it in words: two-hundred-and-seventy-five billion dollars. Now again in numbers: $275,000,000,000. If he tried to withdraw all his money from the bank, not only would that cause some serious repetitive strain injuries for the cashiers, but his dosh as a stack of $100 dollar bills would reach 175 miles high.
Most commercial airplanes fly at 30,000 feet, which is 5.7 miles, so imagine $100 bills reaching thirty times higher than the clouds and you'll be getting somewhere close to Elon's fortune.
And now imagine what sum of money could make him look like a pauper. Yes, today, we are talking in trillions.
In 2009, Zimbabwe introduced a Z$100 trillion note. Lots of noughts didn't mean lots of value, however. Due to hyperinflation it was only worth about US$30 (£20).
How many millions are in a trillion?
A trillion is a million million for both American and modern British English definitions. A trillion dollars is a million dollars multiplied by a million. Or if you prefer, a thousand billion. It has 12 zeroes: 1,000,000,000,000. Makes your eyes cross, doesn't it?
How many billions are in a trillion?
One trillion is the equivalent of 1,000 billion in the modern American system. Up until the 1970s, the UK used the long-scale meaning of trillion, which was 1 million billion (18 zeroes). However, in 1974 Harold Wilson's UK government made the decision to switch to using the modern American meaning to prevent confusion. 5
A trillion in time
When we look at millions, billions and trillions in time scales, the size of a trillion really becomes apparent. It would take us over 350 lifetimes, at an average of 90 years each, to live a trillion seconds (assuming no cryogenic shenanigans).
- A million seconds is 12 days.
- A billion seconds is 31 years.
- A trillion seconds is 31,688 years.
According to Apple, over three trillion photos were taken worldwide using iPhones in 2021. That's over 95,000 photos taken every second of every day. In the time you've spent reading this paragraph, over a million more photos have been captured. 6
How does 1 trillion dollars stack up?
If $1 million in $100 dollar bills stacks up to 40 inches (3.3 feet: kind of underwhelming to look at, really!), and $1 billion is 40,000 inches (that's 0.63 miles high: much more impressive!), $1 trillion in $100 dollar bills is 40,000,000 inches high, which is 631 miles. Suddenly Elon's fortune seems smaller, although one wonders whether we'll still be saying that in 5 or 10 years time.
Now, Musk might be taking a bit of a roasting here, purely because he's got more money than anyone on the planet. If a trillionaire existed, though, they would be taking the flack instead. In the UK, the average salary is £27,000, so even if Average Joe didn't pay any tax, student loans, rent, food bills, heating, travel bills - or any expenditure at all - it would take them 37,037,037 years to save a trillion pounds.
In the US, where the average annual income is around $50,000, saving a trillion bucks (with no outgoings) would take 20,000,000 years. 37 million years, 20 million years... That's a lot longer than humans have even existed, yo.
So, no wonder that trillion is such a gargantuan figure that nobody actually owns it. Although, UK resident Gareth Hughes came close in 2022 when he received a cheque, sent out in error by energy distributor Northern Powergrid, for £2 trillion. "Bank it, quick!"
Thank you for our compensation payment @Northpowergrid for the several days we were without power following #stormarwen Before I bank the cheque however, are you 100% certain you can afford this? #trillionpounds pic.twitter.com/z5MNc2Nxl1— Gareth Hughes (@gh230277) February 12, 2022
Although no one alive currently owns a trillion, we can look at examples who owe it. Now that's some serious credit card debt!
Trillions of debt
Much of the West has been economically blighted since the huge financial crash of 2008, and indeed, that was a catalyst in the UK's national debt rising from around £0.5 trillion to more than £1 trillion in the space of just 3 years. Currently it's around £2.4 trillion, and climbing. 2
The USA has a gross national debt (that's government debt and public debt combined) of around $30.9 trillion. 3 Using $100 bills, they would require a stack of cash that's 18,930 miles high.
Even if the kind folk in Australia allowed the pile to begin on their land, and drilled a tunnel through the Earth's core to stack the money all the way through the diameter of the planet until it popped out on the opposite side in Washington DC, it still wouldn't be enough cash (it would be short by about 1/2, in fact).
This fantastic video from Demonocracy shows how monstrous this amount of money is.
So sure, yeah, you started off reading this and feeling nauseous that you don't have Elon Musk's spending power, but you can also rest easy knowing that you don't have someone knocking on your door, looking for trillions-worth of video games and ramen noodles to repossess.Calculator by Alastair Hazell. Reviewed by Chris Hindle.
- Apple becomes first U.S. company to reach $3 trillion market cap. CNBC
- UK government debt and deficit. Office for National Statistics (UK)
- What is the national debt?. Fiscal Data (Treasury.gov)
- The world's real-time billionaires. Forbes
- Statistical literacy guide. House of Commons Library (UK)
- Apple Event - September 7. YouTube.
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