Famous People

T oo often History focuses on a Napoleon or Lincoln, or Michelangelo or Machiavelli. Neglected are the small but important achievers. Here are just a few of the vast world of ordinary people out there that you are likely to have never heard of, but in one way or another have very quietly, surely, changed our daily lives.


Born in 1913 in rural Maxton, N.C., Malcom McLean bought his very first truck in 1931. Six years later, in 1937, as he waited impatiently for his trucks contents to be loaded onto a ship in Hoboken, N.J., he thought there just must be some way to lift the trailer right onto the vessel and save enormous time and labor. Over two decades, as he built McLean Trucking into one of the nation’s largest freight fleets, the idea stayed with him. In 1955 he purchased a small tanker company, Pan Atlantic, and adapted its ships to carry cargo in large uniform metal containers, On April 26, 1956, the first of his container ships, the Ideal X, left Port Newark a few miles from the Hoboken pier where McLean had his brainstorm. (almost 20 years after the original idea hit him .) It would take a full decade of battles against entrenched shipping firms, railroads and unions before McLean went international, dispatching a container ship to Rotterdam in 1966.

Containerized shipping changed world trade and is still changing it daily.. It has been compared to the transition from sail to steam. It reduced shipping times from the United States to Europe by four weeks, (one full month) cutting loading and unloading at the docks from days to hours and enabling a vessel to carry five times as much freight as before. Soon the lower shipping costs produced by container-ization made it possible for Americans to eat apples from New Zealand, record on Japanese VCRs, wear Hong Kong produced jeans and drink French Perrier water. Today if you use it, eat it or wear it, it probably reached you via a shipping contain-er. Cargo that once arrived in boxes, bales, barrels and bags now comes in sealed containers, with no indication to the human eye of their contents, except for a product code that machines can scan and computers trace. This system of tracking has become so exact that a two-week journey can be timed for arrival within 15 minutes. That fact has helped make possible another fundamental change in the world economy: global “just-in-time” manufacturing, in which, for instance, Japanese car engines arrive still sealed in their containers at a Kentucky plant less than an hour before they are placed in cars.


In July of 1938, Victor Gruen came to America from Austria with $8 in his pocket and little more than his architect s square as his luggage. In his homeland he had championed innovative public housing and had just begun to get good architectural commissions from Vienna department stores when Hitler’s armies invaded.

Fleeing to the United States he brought an idea inspired by the markets of medieval Austrian and Swiss towns he had visited as a young man and by the stately Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan: the covered shopping mall.

It all began in Minnesota in the mid-1950s, when Gruen was commissioned to build a shopping center. He constructed a central courtyard equidistant from two department stores. The result, Southdale, opened on October 8, 1956. Its one giant roof meant that construction costs for individual stores could be reduced, making the whole complex cheaper to build.  So many developers hired Gruen that his firm soon had offices in six major cities. He was called in to replan whole down-towns. At the height of his influence, the Shah of Iran hired him to redesign Teheran. Soon a new generation of developers was building on Gruen’s ideas, combining the mall with historical themes in old Eastern cities—Quincy Market in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore and South Street Seaport in New York.


Alexander M. Poniatoff was a former pilot in the czar’s military who fought against the Communists during the Russian Civil War. He worked as an engineer in China before coming to the United States in 1927, finding it much more amenable to his ambitions. In 1944 Poniatoff founded Ampex, a company he named with his initials, plus “ex” for excellence. Under his leadership young whizzes Charles Gins-burg and Ray M. Dolby developed the videotape recorder. They gave their machine its premiere at a national broadcasting industry convention in April 1956, beating out giant RCA, which was also working on the invention. Ampex’s key innovation was the idea of recording on a bias, a strategy not unlike slicing carrots on the slant so that more of their surface is exposed for cooking. The method proved far more efficient.

The demand for VTRs exceeded all Poniatoff’s expectations, and within a dozen years the value of his company more than doubled, to $220 million. The machine inaugurated the era of the media event when the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” took place in July 1959 at the Ampex booth of an American trade exposition in Moscow and was recorded on a VTR. In the fall of 1963, the instant replay arrived as television highlighted the scrambles of Navy quarterback Roger Staubach. Within weeks the nation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald over and over again. By the time Poniatoff died in 1980, Ampex was a half-billion -dollar-a-year company. His engineers licensed Ampex’s tape technology to a rising Japanese company called Sony, which introduced the videocassette recorder.

Poniatoff’s videotape recorder helped change the public experience of history by making it repeatable and editable. It has also made possible a $15- billion industry; the Hollywood feature-film business now exists in part to feed the home machine.


Born in 1937, Marcian (Ted) Hoff grew up near North Chili, N.Y., and attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Stanford University. He was hired by a new company, Intel, and was assigned to work with a group of engineers designing a dozen silicon chips to fit inside a hand-held calculator. Instead, Hoff and his colleagues managed to combine onto one fingernail-size chip not only all the functions of a pocket calculator but also the logic unit of a mainframe computer —the equivalent of a $300,000 desk-size IBM machine of only a decade earlier.

They had created the microprocessor. This microprocessor could do much more than a pocket calculator, but neither Hoff nor his bosses were sure just what. On November 15, 1971, Intel ran an ad in Electronic News announcing the new kind of chip. It invited the world to figure out what use to make of it. Today microproces-sors not only form the heart of computers, they also do everything from running toasters to controlling the mixture of gasoline and air in automobile engines.

Intel did not obtain patent rights, and Hoff never became wealthy from his invention. A self-effacing man, he often said that if he had not invented the microproces-sor, someone else would have because the idea “was in the air.” In fact a man named Gilbert Hyatt, a Silicon Valley inventor, had also been working on a microprocessor and obtained patent rights. As for Hoff, he continued to labor valiantly for Intel, then went to work for Atari, one of the first personal computer companies. Now semi-retired, (1996) he’s a legal consultant in patent cases. Hoff also tinkers in his garage, that proverbial gestator of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

LOOKING at what ordinary folk have done makes us look afresh at every stranger and imagine possibilities. And looking at the history of everyday life can help us remember that every day is history—and perhaps encourage us to live it a little more intensely.


AMERICAN HERITAGE Magazine , December 1994.

Copyright @ 1994, by: Phil Patton


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