I read Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. ($13 @ Amazon) as one of the books recommended to me earlier in the year when I asked for suggestions. It was a long read, but filled in a lot of blanks about events around the turn of the century, and a lot about Standard Oil.
Rockefeller was an amazing entrepreneur, jumping into the oil business early and making a lot of smart moves. He spent a lot of effort finding ways to make the business more efficient, from oil extraction to refining to transportation. He moved into kerosene and to sell more of it (to create the market) gave way kerosene lamps. He also saw the value of people, trying to hire the best, and keeping most managers in place when he acquired companies.
He played hardball. He made deals with the train lines to get discounted rates and rebates based on volume (entirely fair), but also beat them into paying him a rebate on oil they moved for other refineries. He more or less invented the word monopoly, and caused a lot of government regulation to happen at the turn of the century (though in hindsight the market was too big even then for him to truly gain a monopoly).
He also put a lot of effort into charity work and giving away the money he earned, especially later in life. He lived a relatively simple life, never moving into high society, though certainly using his money to live well.
On balance I came away with the impression of a smart man that was willing to bet on his own judgment, a great business guy, questionable ethics at work but great ethics at home. Not someone you’d choose as a competitor if you had the choice, but not someone I’d want to work with either.
It’s worth reading, and will make you think about how capitalism works, good and bad.