Shipping containers – one of the biggest, and most unappreciated logistical innovations of the 20th century. Today they transport goods all over the world. It took until 1956 however for them to be invented, due to the efforts of Malcom McLean. In this article we will be investigating Malcom McLean and his efforts to develop containerisation to the state it is in today.
Malcom McLean was not born the rich man he went on to be. Born in 1914, he spent his early adult years assisting his hard hit family in the height of the great depression. The son of a farmer, he originally sold eggs for his mother. However, with farming one of the worst hit industries in the 1930s, he gained a job at a petrol station. This did not stop his entrepreneurial spirit however, and he soon saved up enough money to buy a second-hand lorry.
From there he started his first business, the ‘McLean Trucking company’. McLean’s company did well enough that he was able to buy five more lorries and hire drivers for them. McLean slowly built this company up, amassing 30 lorries by 1940. He eventually sold his company in 1955 for $6m, $55 million in today’s money. With the idea in his head and money in his pocket, McLean set about to pursue his next business venture, containerisation.
Birth of Containerisation
The idea of containerisation came to McLean during one business trip in 1937. He was in the process of delivering cotton bales to the port of Hoboken, New Jersey. Whilst waiting to deposit his load, he became aware of the immense amount of time and effort being taken to carefully unload each individual box or item, transport them to the ship, and then stow them once more. It struck McLean that it would be so much easier to just lift up his trucks trailer and deposit it in the ship. This would stop any of the goods inside being disturbed, as opposed to him having to wait around all day.
Instead of diving straight into developing containerisation, McLean first waited till he had become rich enough to pursue the idea. Having sold his trucking company in 1955, McLean was now well equipped to industrialise containerisation. Only a year later in 1956, McLean had developed the world’s first sea containers. 58 well-filled boxes were contained on Ideal X, an ageing oil tanker, ready to set off on a voyage from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. The voyage went off without a hitch, and the rest is history. By 1996, around 90% of world trade was moving in specially designed ships. This was all thanks to the advancements in containerisation by Malcom McLean.
The true genius behind McLean’s idea was not just the time saved transporting goods by sea, but the cost of savings too. Containerisation meant reducing dock labour of handling and storing goods with savings in the range of 25%. This also naturally led to a significant reduction In jobs. Sealed cargo also meant safer transport and reduced risk of pilfering. With the successful voyage of Ideal X, McLean rushed to begin a new company centred around the idea, which he named ‘Sea-Land’.
McLean rapidly expanded his business, pouring significant investment into the project. His efforts were quickly successful however. The Port of New York Authority’s soon decided to construct a new container port in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in turn ushering in cargo shipping as the shipping method of the future. Whilst attempting to expand abroad, the Vietnam war aided McLean in expanding his business venture to the Asian market. As more and more ports became adapted to shipping containers, McLean’s venture grew and grew. Eventually McLean sold Sea-Land in 1969 for a total price of $160 million, $1 billion in today’s money.