27 companies that changed the world

June 11, 2014, 3:18 PM UTC
27 companies mcdonalds
Portrait of McDonald's owner Ray Kroc eating hamburger in front of Neon sign outside restaurant. Art Shay—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Other things make the world go round as well—love, principally, and coffee—but there is nothing quite like the study of business to illuminate where we have been and where we are going. The poet Archibald MacLeish, when he was a staff writer at Fortune, described his job as to “report the world of business as an expression—a peculiarly enlightening expression—of the Republic, of the changing world.” It has become a bit of a catchphrase among tech people to say that one’s company is going to “change the world.” Many companies do, in small ways. But disrupting, say, the taxi business is not going to set future historians atwitter (though Twitter conceivably might). We surveyed Fortune’s brain trust to come up with a ranking of the 27 companies that have done the most to alter the way we live. Then, of course, we couldn’t stop. So when you’ve considered this compilation, click through to two companion pieces, 11 quirky companies that totally blew your mind, and 20 companies that changed the world—in fiction.

27. United Fruit

A man carries a stem of bananas over his shoulder at a United Fruit Company plantation, Tiquisate, Guatemala, 1945.

United Fruit, the 800-pound gorilla of the banana trade, kept a stranglehold on the U.S. import market for the fruit for much of the 20th century. And in the countries where it operated in Central America, the West Indies, and parts of South America, United Fruit was a powerful economic and political force—building railroads and ports, both propping up and pushing out dictators, even running Guatemala’s post office. The governments in these tiny nations were so dominated by United Fruit that the writer O. Henry was inspired to label the countries "banana republics." United Fruit lives on today as Chiquita Brands International (CQB). —Brian O’Keefe

Photograph by Frank Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images

26. Mitchell Energy

(NYT12) GALVESTON, Texas -- Jan. 26, 2002 -- TEXAS-ENERFY-COS-2 -- When all the attention is focused on Enron, smaller companies like Mitchell Energy and another Houston company, Kinder Morgan Inc., have shown that there is another way to do business in the oil patch: the old-fashioned way. These companies focused on real assets like pipelines and actual oil and gas. In his office before the sale of his company, George Mitchell had a quiet moment. Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Energy and Development, recieved $1.3 billion in the sale on Thursday to Devon Energy.

The game-changing boom in U.S. oil and gas production from shale rock in recent years can be traced to one persistent entrepreneur in Texas: George Mitchell. In the early 1980s, the son of Greek immigrants (original family name: Paraskevopolous) had profitable long-term contracts to supply natural gas to utilities. But he worried about his fields depleting before his contracts ended, and he pushed his geologists to experiment with an existing technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a way to extract gas from the tight-rock formation near Fort Worth called the Barnett Shale. Year after year, the company tried different formulas for injecting a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the shale to fracture it and release the trapped gas. By the end of 2002, after two decades of effort, Mitchell's team had begun to find success when he sold the company to Devon Energy (DVN). Devon combined its expertise in horizontal drilling with Mitchell’s innovations in fracking to fully unlock the Barnett Shale and provide a blueprint for the rest of the world. —Brian O'Keefe

Photograph by James Estrin/The New York Times—Redux Pictures

25. McDonald's

The "Speedee" McDonald's in Downey, California, the third restaurant built by the McDonald brothers Dick and Maurice.

The fast-food giant turned food production into a science through automation, training us to expect consistency from our food. (Founder Ray Kroc has been credited with saying, "I put the hamburger on the assembly line.") McDonald's (MCD) made the Big Mac and fries synonymous with American cuisine around the world, serving 70 million customers a day in more than 35,000 restaurants in 120 countries. "The hamburger is symbolic of our society," says Heidelberg University professor and fast-food industry scholar David Hogan, "and McDonald's is of course the ambassador and marketer of that concept." —Beth Kowitt

Hulton Archive—Getty Images

24. Krupp

Friedrich Krupp (1854 - 1902).

For almost two centuries and five generations, Friedrich Krupp AG dominated the European steel and armaments industry that fueled German expansionism from the Franco-Prussian War to both world wars. Friedrich Krupp co-founded a mill in 1811 and developed a process of casting steel that he handed down to his heirs. Son Alfred, who took control in 1848, boosted the manufacture of weaponry, and by the 1880s “the cannon king” had made Krupp the largest company on the Continent. The family shared its wealth with workers, building housing estates, dental clinics, and convalescent homes for employees. The company merged in 1999 with Thyssen to form ThyssenKrupp. —Edward Karam

Photograph by Hulton Archive—Getty Images

23. Wright Co.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, U,S,A, pictured making the world's first hour-long flight by aeroplane at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1907.

The Wright brothers were not the first to build and fly airplanes, and their company focused more on defending their patent rights than on developing new aircraft. (In fact, some argue that the Wrights' patent battles impeded the growth of the nascent aviation business). But their patent, no. 821393, described the invention of three-axis control—covering pitch, roll, and yaw—that made fixed-wing aircraft practical. Their method remains standard for airplanes today. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Popperfoto—Getty Images

22. McLean Industries

Jim McLean, visionary trucker

The voyage of the SS Ideal-X from Elizabeth, N.J., to Houston, Texas, in the spring of 1956 is not one you learn about in school. Yet, like other more-famous sea journeys, it was the start of something big. That’s because it was carrying, for the first time on a ship, cargo packed into identical steel boxes 8 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 35 feet long. These particular standardized shipping containers—developed by visionary trucking veteran Malcolm McLean—could be seamlessly moved from trailer bed to ship deck to dockyard to train flatcar, for a fraction of the cost and time of previous methods. Suddenly, where stuff was made didn’t have to be near where it was needed in order for it to be inexpensive. Globalization hasn’t looked back since. —Chad McCabe

Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images

21. Facebook

st/facebook Message posted at an online college community called 'thefacebook.com.

A decade after Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard undergrad, launched a service to connect everyone in the world, Facebook (FB) is growing closer to its goal: 1.3 billion active users, three-fifths of whom log on every single day. Facebook introduced a new way to navigate the web—via the scrolling “newsfeed” of personal updates that has become a staple on many websites—and a new way to organize digital information—via personal relationships instead of page links. In the process, the company reinvented brand marketing on the web, replacing the reviled banner ad with highly targeted ads that brought in $7.9 billion in sales in 2013. Even as Zuckerberg, who just turned 30, continues to run Facebook, he’s using his largesse to tackle education reform; he has pledged $220 million so far to school reform efforts in Newark, N.J. and the Bay Area. —Jessi Hempel

Photograph by Juana Arias/The Washington Post—Getty Images

20. Otis Elevator

Elisha Graves Otis performing his safety elevator demonstration inside the dome of the Crystal Palace at the World’s Fair in New York City.

The year is 1854. Hundreds gather in the New York Crystal Palace, the iron-and-glass exhibition hall at the center of the World’s Fair, to watch a man standing on a platform four stories high, suspended by a single taut rope. A few electrifying moments pass before Elisha Otis signals his assistant, hovering by the rope with an outstretched sword, to sever the cable in two. The crowd gasps. The platform jolts—but doesn’t fall, as a pair of hidden leaf springs engage the rails, keeping Otis’s “safety elevator” miraculously in place. Credit the showmanship to P.T. Barnum, who hired Otis to perform this stunt several times a day for a whole month. Credit the world-changing invention to Otis, who founded his elevator company in an old Yonkers, N.Y., bedstead factory the year before. The safety elevator made it possible for buildings to climb ever skyward—from the 20-story Flatiron Building in New York (equipped with Otis elevators in 1902) to the nearly 60-story Woolworth Building a decade later, to the 103-story Empire State Building in 1931. It was this fast, reliable people-and-freight mover that made possible the office tower and the city skyline, that made high-rises and penthouses symbols of status, that made awkward elevator talk a daily rite of passage for hundreds of millions of souls. Fiber rope shifted to steel cables. Electronic buttons have largely replaced flesh-and-blood operators. But the safety elevator of today is much the same as the one that wowed the World’s Fair audience 16 decades ago. And for all that time, the Otis Elevator Company, now part of United Technologies (UTX), has dominated the industry it created. —Clifton Leaf

Photograph courtesy of United Technologies

19. Sony

Sony's first transistor radio , produced in 1955.

The way the world thinks of audio and video products was fundamentally redirected by Sony (SNE) from the 1950s through the 1980s. The company didn't make the first transistor radio, but in 1957 it introduced a hugely successful one that helped propel the concurrent revolution in popular music. Its color TV sets of the 1960s and 1970s raised the global standard for quality. The Walkman, introduced in 1979, again revolutionized the way the world listens to music; it foreshadowed the iPod, which Sony obviously should have invented. But by then its fortunes had changed. Beyond transforming an industry, Sony also helped advance its country. In the 1950s and 1960s, “Made in Japan” was a punchline that meant laughably poor quality. By the 1980s it meant the opposite, and Sony products were the most visible cause of the change. —Geoff Colvin

Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters

18. Diner's Club

Singer Patti Page and Diners Club President Ralph Schneider cut the ribbon for the official opening of the Diners Club exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

You can think of it as a monumental driver of economic growth or as the beginning of civilization’s decline, but no innovation in history has made borrowing money easier for the common person than has the credit card. And Diners Club is how the revolution began. Before the 1950 launch of Diners Club, only individual retailers issued credit cards. New York finance executive Frank Sullivan had the breakthrough idea of issuing a card that could be used at many different companies, based on a new business model with himself as the middleman. Diners Club began not as a credit card but as a charge card—you had to pay off the whole balance every month. But the power and consumer-credit possibilities of the new model soon became apparent to bankers and financiers (and Diners Club), and the borrowing binge began. How’s this for world-changing: Global credit card debt now exceeds $1 trillion. —Geoff Colvin

Photograph by New York World Telegram & Sun—AP

17. Bayer

Chemists working for Bayer synthesized Prontosil, the first antibiotic, in 1932, more than a decade before penicillin became commercially available. Prontosil and subsequent “sulfa” drugs—the first chemicals used to treat bacterial infections—opened a new era in medicine. Gerhard Domagk, a Bayer researcher, was awarded the Nobel Price for his work on prontosil in 1939. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Imagno—Getty Images

16. Apple

The new iPhone on display at MacWorld on January 10, 2007 in San Francisco.

Apple (AAPL) changed the world by augmenting its simple-to-use PC with music software and a portable player to go with it, a groundbreaking smartphone, and a tablet computer—all of which work together brilliantly. It also taught us that mavericks can succeed in business; that even a box of molded plastic can be beautifully designed; that single-digit market share doesn’t spell death in a fast-moving industry; that one man really can define the soul of a giant corporation; that focus trumps breadth; that clever marketing can convince people around the world to love a company, even a company whose workplace is a brutal grind; that brand matters; that putting an “i” in front of a product’s name is infinitely repeatable; and, perhaps most importantly, that being better is vastly preferable to being first. —Adam Lashinsky

Photograph by David Paul Morris—Getty Images

15. Pan American World Airways

A Pan Am Clipper seaplane, circa 1941.

Facts and figures substantiate how Pan Am shaped the global airline industry, but its greatest influence was cultural: It made air travel glamorous. The company routinely bought the very first copies of the newest planes, such as the Boeing 707 and 747—critically important for manufacturers while burnishing Pan Am’s image. Its technology was the latest, its flight crews the most thoroughly trained, its food the most lavish, or at least so it seemed. When the Beatles invaded America, they stepped off Pan Am flight 101 at JFK. James Bond flew Pan Am between New York and London (in Live and Let Die). When 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted in 1968, it was obvious whose logo would have to be on the vehicle that took tourists into orbit. Pan Am failed and shut down in 1991, but by then it had given commercial flying a sparkle that has dimmed (a lot) but still not disappeared. —Geoff Colvin

George Strock The LIFE Picture Collection—Getty Images

14. RCA

An RCA Victor record label logo showing the dog 'Nipper' listening to a gramophone and hearing 'His Master's Voice,' 1920s.

RCA lasted only 67 years (1919-1986), and its world-changing phase lasted only about 40 (1920-1960). But in that time it pioneered the radio receiver business and developed the model of network broadcasting with the creation of NBC. It then proceeded to dominate the television business in almost every way: It was the leading maker of TV sets; its color TV technology became the national standard; and TV broadcasters across the U.S. used RCA cameras. RCA Victor was the world’s largest maker of phonographs and records. No other company so profoundly influenced both the engineering and the content, the left brain and the right, of the media revolution that helped shape the 20th century. —Geoff Colvin

Blank Archives—Getty Images

13. Suez Canal Co.

Ships entering the Suez Canal at its inauguration, Egypt, 1869

Fernand de Lesseps’s company dug the modern canal, completed in 1869, using forced Egyptian labor. It wasn’t an original idea; Pharaohs had been doing the same thing in the same place in pre-Christian times. No wonder: The canal, at 102 miles long (and about 78 feet deep today) is the shortest route between the East and the West. —Tim Smith

Photograph by LL/Roger Viollet Collection—Getty Images

12. Lloyd's of London

The Lutine Bell inside the callers' rostrum at Lloyd's of London, circa 1930.

Okay, it’s not a company, strictly speaking, it’s an insurance marketplace. (For an analog, think of the marketplace called the New York Stock Exchange). It began in Edward Lloyd’s London coffeehouse in the 17th century, when the socializers there—among the first to hear marine news—banded together to insure the ships of commerce intrepidly plying the seas. Until then, the concept of insurance just wasn’t. The Underwriters at Lloyd’s—including individuals called “names”—went on to insure everything, including Bruce Springsteen’s vocal cords, Tina Turner’s legs, and a Cutty Sark contest that risked someone actually hauling in the Loch Ness Monster. —Carol Loomis

Photograph by Humphrey Joel/Hulton Archive—Getty Images

11. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena

The main entrance at the Monte dei Paschi headquarters n Siena.

During the Renaissance, the world's first great banks flourished by financing Italy's fabled city states and merchant families, and built the pillars of modern banking with such innovations as double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange resembling checks, and the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals for handling complex transactions. Founded in 1472, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena pioneered the "retail" side as an enterprise offering loans at reasonable rates, principally to farmers—providing a haven from the unscrupulous moneylenders who gouged the needy. Recently rocked by scandals and bailouts, it remains the oldest surviving bank in the world, and the third largest in Italy. —Shawn Tully

Photograph by Reuters

10. Google

Google co-founders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Dream up something outlandish. Make it ubiquitous. Repeat. That’s been Google’s formula since day one, as it embarked on an ambitious mission to organize the world’s information. Tame the web? Check. Build a computer that fits in your pocket? Check. Photograph every street to make it navigable from afar? Check. Digitize the planet's books? Check. Build a polyglot translator in software? Check. Think of Google (GOOG) as a factory for major innovations, from self-driving cars to wearable computers to technology for extending the lifespan of humans. —Miguel Helft

Photograph by Ben Margot—AP

9. DuPont

DuPont demonstrates the strength of Mylar in 1954.

Rayon. Nylon. Cellophane. Orlon. Dacron. Lucite. Neoprene. Mylar. Freon. Lycra. Teflon. Kevlar. Corian. Tyvek. You could tell the story of the developed world through the materials that DuPont (DD) invented or commercialized. The Delaware company, 212 years old, spent its first century as a gunpowder maker, supplying the U.S. in 1812, and the Union in the Civil War. It diversified into materials for everything from pantyhose to parachutes, countertops to bulletproof vests, food wrappers to air-conditioning. It was the main contractor for plutonium on the Manhattan Project. Today huge numbers of corporations call Delaware their official home largely because of state laws influenced (or written) by DuPont (the company) or DuPonts (the family). —Nicholas Varchaver

Photograph by Andreas Feininger/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images

8. GE

The first electric light bulb, invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879 and patented on January 27, 1880.

GE (GE) changed the world in not one or two, but three big ways. Guided by Thomas Edison, founder of the predecessor company Edison General Electric, it brought electricity and light bulbs to America and the world. That alone would be enough to put GE high up on our list, but there’s more. Transformation No. 2 was creating America’s first research lab. No. 3 was building an elaborate system of management development, a new idea at the advent of the giant corporation, that has guided companies around the world for over a hundred years. —Geoff Colvin

Photograph by Welgos—Getty Images

7. Svenska Tandsticks AB (“Swedish Match”)

Ivar Kreuger

Ivar Kreuger, a Swedish industrialist who built an empire founded on the safety match, was perhaps the most brilliant swindler of all time. After he put a bullet through his heart in a Paris hotel room in 1932, his many frauds were uncovered and thousands of investors lost their savings. The “Kreuger Crash” that shook Wall Street prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Securities Act of 1933 regulating the offer and sale of securities. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Popperfoto—Getty Images

6. British East India Company

Officers of the British East India Company gathered in Founder's Hall.

The Dutch had their East India Company, considered by many the first true multinational, which rampaged across Asia using military force to pursue the spice trade. But the British East India Company, founded in 1600, was the real imperial colossus: It ruled much of India, sparked the Opium Wars with China, and grew to account for half the world’s trade. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Mansell Collection

5. Ford

A Model T Ford.

During a period of unparalleled innovation early in the 20th century, Ford Motor (F) developed the moving assembly line, raised the wages of the workers who manned it to $5 a day, and made the Model T affordable to millions of buyers, thereby giving birth to the automobile age. By constantly refining its mass-production methods, Ford brought the price of the “T” down to $240, and the car became so popular it required no advertising. The “T” was also built in 12 foreign countries, making it the first world car. Today, Ford is still the world’s fifth-largest automaker, controlled by the descendants of Henry Ford, the inventor who founded it 111 years ago. —Alex Taylor III

Photograph by Vintage Images—Getty Images

4. G.D. Searle

G.D. Searle workers wear inflatable air-fed protection suits to handle powerful synthetic female sex hormones in 1968.

The men who ran Searle initially didn’t think there would be a market for a drug that had to be taken every day and neither treated nor prevented disease. Boy were they surprised after they introduced Enovid, the first birth control pill, in 1957. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL—Getty Images

3. McCormick Harvesting Machine Co.

Cyrus Hall McCormick, circa 1924

Farmers reportedly laughed when they saw Cyrus McCormick’s horse-drawn mechanical reaper in the 1830s. With a whirling reel of wooden bars and a sharp blade, it looked simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous. But it instantly raised farm productivity by a factor of six (and much more after later improvements), with profound effects. In America and then globally, superfluous farm hands became an army of industrial workers. Food prices dropped, giving consumers better health and more disposable income. McCormick’s reaper faced plenty of competitors, but through superior marketing and management it swept the field. —Geoff Colvin

Photograph by Print Collector—Getty Images

2. AT&T

Alexander Graham Bell (1847 - 1922) makes the first telephone call from New York to Chicago in 1892.

The company would belong on this list just for providing ubiquitous phone service, a major step up from telegraphy and letters. But its most significant and game-changing contribution may have been its role in the development of the transistor, that key building block of all computing and electronic devices. Scientists at AT&T’s Bell Labs (T) are credited with inventing the transistor in 1947. Crucially, the company did not patent this new technology, out of fear of antagonizing the Justice Department over the monopolistic nature of its business. (The government did, of course, break up Ma Bell in 1982.) That decision opened the gate to the information technology and gadget-saturated world we live in today. —Stephanie Mehta

Photograph by Fox Photos—Getty Images

1. Standard Oil

1927 Portrait Of The American Industrialist John D. in Rockefeller in 1927.

John D. Rockefeller established a monopoly on the most precious commodity in the world. By the time his trust—which included some 40 corporations—was broken up in 1911, petroleum products were on the way to being indispensable for transportation, agriculture, industry, warfare, and in many places even light. The story of petroleum was the story of the 20th century, and with the changes in climate, it could be the story of the 21st as well. —Tim Smith

Photograph by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images

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