From U.S. Steel’s $1 billion market cap to Apple’s $1 trillion: a brief history of valuation milestones

 In U.S.

Here we go again, spilling ink over a round-number milestone.

Apple Inc.

AAPL, -0.82%

became the first U.S.-listed company in history to achieve a $1 trillion market capitalization on Thursday.

The ongoing, and long-running, bull market has been led by huge gains in the stocks of big-name tech behemoths. And Apple’s historic feat — while, yes, just another stat for the history books — can be viewed as the ultimate symbol of Big Tech’s rise over the American corporate icons of old: U.S. Steel, General Electric, Exxon, Wal-Mart.

U.S. Steel

X, +0.54%

 , generally cited as the first U.S. publicly listed company to reach a $1 billion market capitalization, cleared the milestone immediately upon going public in 1901.

The history of these market-cap distinctions, viewed over time, paints a historical portrait of America’s changing corporate landscape — from the dominance of industrials for most of the 20th century, to the dawn of the tech era in the latter decades of the century, to today’s dominance of technology companies (and Apple’s freshly minted $1 trillion valuation).


The first $100 billion U.S. company

First, a few historical notes: IBM

IBM, +1.05%

is sometimes identified as the first publicly listed U.S. company to reach the $100 billion milestone, doing so on Aug. 20, 1987. However, IBM never closed above that threshold, according to FactSet’s data analysis.

Meanwhile, the old AT&T Corp.

T, +0.37%

(before it was acquired by SBC Communications, which then took the AT&T name, in 2005) closed above $100 billion in November 1992, according to FactSet market-cap tracking. However, the Dow Jones Market Data Group was not able to independently confirm that number when calculating the market cap manually using historical share counts and share pricing on that date. This may be as a result of corporate actions taken by the company in 2005, but it appears the available data leave room for doubt at this milestone level.

AFP/Getty Images

Pictured from left at an NYSE ceremony marking the centennial of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in May 1996 are the exchange’s then-chairman, Richard Grasso; then–Dow Jones CEO Peter Kahn; Jack Welch, then the CEO of General Electric; and a man dressed as Dow Jones co-founder Charles Henry Dow. The opening bell was rung by Welch, in recognition of the fact that GE was, at that time, the only surviving company among the 12 listed in the first average. GE was removed as a Dow component this June.

Which brings us to General Electric

GE, +0.65%

circa 1995. U.S. stocks were about halfway through the bull market that began in the early 1990s and ended with the dot-com bust of 2000. On Sept. 14, 1995, GE crossed the $100 billion mark, making it the first officially recorded to have done so.

The industrial conglomerate, in many ways, had the kind of stock success story in the 20th century that Apple is having in the 21st.

Recently, however, GE’s stock has come upon harder times. In June, GE was booted as a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average

DJIA, +0.70%

replaced by Walgreens Boots Alliance

WBA, +0.51%

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