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human progress lesson

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 17: Malcom McLean

Read this article to learn more about McLean’s straightforward idea that led to an explosion of global trade that has benefitted billions of people.

By Sean Kinnard


Heroes of Progress

13-part unit
  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 25: Tu Youyou

    In this article, Alexander C. R. Hammond explains how Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin was “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half [of the 20th] century.”

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

    Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 45: John Snow

    This lesson is about John Snow, an English physician and pioneer in anesthesia and epidemiology. Snow’s groundbreaking work led to the widespread adoption of anesthesia as well as a significant improvement in public health around the world.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 13: James Watt

    Some historians believe that the Industrial Revolution has been the most fundamental change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. James Watt was a key figure in this transformation.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

    In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 27: Kate Sheppard

    In this lesson, students will learn about the extraordinary life of Kate Sheppard, the inspirational suffragist whose tireless work and petitioning of New Zealand’s parliament in the latter half of the 19th century is largely credited for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

  • Heroes of Progress: Norman Borlaug

    In this lesson, you’ll explore the life of Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. using text and video and consider the lessons we can apply from his story to our own lives and to current world problems.

  • Rosemarie Fike: Women and Progress

    Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of different types of economic institutions on women’s status and lives.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

    In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of two 19th‐​century mathematicians and computing pioneers: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two English polymaths conceived the first automatic computer and recognized that it could have applications beyond mere calculation. Together, they laid the groundwork for modern computing.

About 70 years ago, a North Carolina man figured out a way to drastically reduce the time and expense of shipping goods overseas. Malcolm McLean is not a household name, but his innovation of containerized shipping transformed the world. Read this article to learn more about McLean’s straightforward idea that led to an explosion of global trade that has benefitted billions of people.


  • What do you know about global trade? Do you know where the things you use every day like your tennis shoes, your phone, or the piece of fruit you had with lunch come from?
    How did these products get to you?
    As a class, create a K‑W-L chart. When you’re finished with this lesson, come back to the chart and fill in the right column.
K: What do you KNOW about global trade? W: What do you WANT to know about global trade? L: What did you LEARN about global trade?

  • What do you know about shipping containers? Have you ever seen metal shipping containers on a semi‐​truck, on a train, or stacked on a ship? Watch this video to learn more about this important 20th‐​century innovation. Then answer these questions:
    • Before container ships, how was cargo loaded onto and off of ships?
    • What were some major problems with the traditional method of cargo handling on ships?
    • How did cheaper shipping lead to globalized manufacturing?

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

  • What does the term “containerization” mean in the context of 21st‐​century commerce?
  • What formative experience demonstrated to McLean that the loading process of ships, as it existed during the 1930s, was wasteful and time‐​consuming?
  • What were the advantages of McLean’s containerized shipping system that debuted in 1956? List at least three advantages.
  • How has McLean’s innovation of containerized cargo ships impacted the global economy? Fill in the chart below:
  McLean transformed global commerce by developing standardized intermodal shipping containers. What were the impacts?
Impact on shipping costs (be specific)
Impact on shipping times (be specific)
Impact on consumers worldwide
Impact on poverty rates in export‐​oriented economies (e.g., China)
Impact on the volume of world trade

Extension Activity/​Homework

  • Create a Supply Chain Presentation
    Choose a favorite product that you use on a regular basis that does not originate in your home country. It could be a food, such as strawberries grown in Chile, a laptop built in China, or a jacket manufactured in Bangladesh. Look at the product’s label to determine its origin.

    A lot of information about the origins of popular products is available online. Conduct independent open‐​source research to trace the supply chain of your item. To determine likely export and import points, you may want to use the Marine Traffic website.

    Create a Google Slides or PowerPoint document that shows the supply chain of your favorite product from overseas. Be as specific as possible. Include where it was made or grown, the people and companies that built it, and the time it took from origin to its final destination‐​you. Include relevant images on each slide.