The credit goes to Edgar P. Smith. That’s the name of the Fortune editor who, more than six decades ago, had an inspired idea: Why not publish a list of the 500 largest industrial companies in the U.S.? And so, in July 1955, the Fortune 500 made its debut, with companies ranked by the size of the previous year’s revenues. The phrase quickly entered the lexicon, and almost overnight the Fortune 500 became the ultimate scorecard for Big Business success in America—and a proxy for tracking our economy’s changes over time.
To highlight that economic evolution, here we present a graphic breakdown of three key years in the list’s history: 1955, the year of its birth; 1995, when the list was expanded to include “service” companies like retailers; and this year’s list. As you can see, Edgar Smith’s big idea is now bigger than ever.