Containerization was a massively important innovation which powered the expansion of global trade but it was a difficult idea to implement.
Before containerization, goods were physically manhandled as break bulk cargo. At the factory or warehouse, goods were loaded onto a truck, driven to a port and then offloaded to await the next suitable ship. The dockers (aka longshoremen) piled boxes, barrels, and sacks onto wooden pallets secured with ropes. The pallets were then hoisted onto the ship where more dockers would carry each item and fit it snugly into the ship’s hold. This was difficult, time-consuming and dangerous work – many dockers were injured or killed at work.
When the vessel was eventually fully loaded it would set off. It might easily have over 1000 different loads on board – each with its own paperwork. If the ship had to visit more than one port to deliver goods then dockers had to find and pick the items to be offloaded and then reposition the remaining cargo. Once delivered the goods were loaded onto trucks and sent to their destinations. Multiple handling and delays made transport costly, time-consuming and unreliable. Each day in port is expensive for ship owners and fractious dockers would use strikes and go-slows in order to secure better terms.
The idea for a better way of doing things had been around for some time. It was simple – put things in big boxes and move the boxes. In 1766 in England James Brindley designed a box boat with wooden containers to transport coal by canal to Manchester. As early as the 1830s, railroads such as the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were using containers.
But there was opposition. Trucking companies, shipping companies, and ports could not agree on a standard. Some wanted large containers and others wanted small. The dockers’ unions were strongly opposed to the idea as they correctly saw it as a direct threat to their levels of control and employment. The freight sector was highly regulated and regulators were happy with the status quo.
The man who changed all this was Malcolm McLean. He was born in 1913 in North Carolina. His family was poor. They could not afford to send him to college but they could afford a second-hand truck. Together with his brother and sister, he founded the McLean Trucking Company.
In the 1950s McLean foresaw the great potential of containers and he used his commercial expertise and political shrewdness to make things happen. He was an expert in trucking but could not persuade shipping companies to adapt their ships for containers. He borrowed $22 million from the bank and bought two World War II tankers which he converted to carry containers on and under deck.
On April 26, 1956, with 100 invited dignitaries present, one of the converted tankers was loaded and sailed from New Jersey to Houston Texas, carrying fifty-eight 35-foot containers, along with a regular load of liquid tank cargo. As the ship left the port, Freddy Fields, an officer of the International Longshoremen’s Union, was asked what he thought of the new container ship. Fields replied, “I’d like to sink that son of a bitch.”
It is estimated that in 1956 hand-loading a ship cost $5.86 a ton. Using containers, it cost only 16 cents a ton, a 36-fold saving. Containerization also greatly reduced the time to load and unload ships.
McLean designed and patented the standard container; 8 feet tall by 8 ft wide by 10 ft and made from thick corrugated steel. The design incorporated a twist-lock mechanism at the corners, allowing the container to be easily secured and lifted using cranes. He then gave the patented designs to industry; thus enabling international standardization of shipping containers.
McLean achieved a huge breakthrough in the 1960s when he persuaded the US military to use his containers to ship equipment to Vietnam. They became a key part of one of the first integrated logistical systems – now common across the world. McLean shipped the empty containers from Vietnam to Japan where they were filled with consumer goods and then transported back to the USA.
Nowadays people across the globe enjoy the benefits of cheap products made far away – cars, toys, electronic goods, clothes, and appliances. They are all shipped in containers and using the systems that Malcolm McLean developed.
McLean died in New York in 2001. Forbes Magazine called him, “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.
Originally published on Destination Innovation
Here are more ways to become a part of The Good Men Project community:
Request to join our private Facebook Group for Writers—it’s like our virtual newsroom where you connect with editors and other writers about issues and ideas.
Click here to become a Premium Member of The Good Men Project Community. Have access to these benefits:
- Get access to an exclusive “Members Only” Group on Facebook
- Join our Social Interest Groups—weekly calls about topics of interest in today’s world
- View the website with no ads
- Get free access to classes, workshops, and exclusive events
- Be invited to an exclusive weekly “Call with the Publisher” with other Premium Members
- Commenting badge.
Are you stuck on what to write? Sign up for our Writing Prompts emails, you’ll get ideas directly from our editors every Monday and Thursday. If you already have a final draft, then click below to send your post through our submission system.
If you are already working with an editor at GMP, please be sure to name that person. If you are not currently working with a GMP editor, one will be assigned to you.
Are you a first-time contributor to The Good Men Project? Submit here:
Have you contributed before and have a Submittable account? Use our Quick Submit link here:
Do you have previously published work that you would like to syndicate on The Good Men Project? Click here:
Join our exclusive weekly “Call with the Publisher” — where community members are encouraged to discuss the issues of the week, get story ideas, meet other members and get known for their ideas? To get the call-in information, either join as a member or wait until you get a post published with us. Here are some examples of what we talk about on the calls.
Want to learn practical skills about how to be a better Writer, Editor or Platform Builder? Want to be a Rising Star in Media? Want to learn how to Create Social Change? We have classes in all of those areas.
While you’re at it, get connected with our social media:
However, you engage with The Good Men Project—you can help lead this conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Join us!
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
Photo credit: Shutterstock ID 556985512