Malcom McLean is known, or actually unknown, for having reinvented the modern world of global trade. In 1956, this relatively unknown North Carolina trucker invented and patented the first shipping container, an invention that is thought to be one of the top ten most important inventions of the 20th century. A few decades later, McLean’s inventions and methods now transport 90% of the world’s trade cargo. In 1956, it cost $5.86 per ton to load loose cargo onto ships. After McLean, it would cost $0.16 per ton. The International Maritime Hall of Fame named him the “Man of the Century”. Why? Because he saved the shipping industry.
Let me tell you the amazing story of Malcom McLean.
Malcom Purcell McLean was born in 1914 in Maxton, North Carolina. He and his six siblings grew up on their family farm. As a teenager for money, he would haul empty tobacco barrels in an old trailer, and also work at a local gas station in his hometown.
In 1934, a couple years after graduating high school he had saved $120, bought a used truck, and started McLean Trucking Company with his two siblings.
McLean Trucking would haul dirt and produce mainly for other farmers in the community. He scaled the business quickly to several trucks which allowed him to focus on sales and new business. Almost immediately economic hardship hit a bulk of their customers and he was forced to scale down and get behind the wheel and drive truck again.
In 1937, the idea of shipping cargo boxes came to him while he was waiting in his truck watching longshoremen loading and unloading goods. He recalled:
“I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off the truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship.”
His idea for the modern-day shipping container would lay dormant for almost two more decades.
By 1955, McLean Trucking was the largest trucking fleet in the South and fifth largest in the United States. He managed over 1,700 trucks and 37 transport terminals along the eastern seaboard. Up to this point all port cargo was loaded and unloaded in wooden crates. As the trucking industry grew, so did the regulation which limited the weight a truck could carry. If caught a trucking company could be levied with large fines. This made McLean revive his idea of a universally used cargo container that could be used for trucks and ships.
He said, “ships would be a cost effective way around shoreside weight restrictions . . . no tire, no chassis repairs, no drivers, no fuel costs . . . Just the trailer, free of its wheels. Free to be lifted unencumbered. And not just one trailer, or two of them, or five, or a dozen, but hundreds, on one ship.”
He couldn’t let this idea lay dormant any longer, so he decided to take action. It was going to be a heavy lift.
McLean envisioned transporting containerized cargo as an extension of his trucking business. He believed having trucking hubs at port cities in the North and South would make shipping much more efficient and limit the trucks to shorter distances away from interstate commerce where fines were levied.
The railroad companies didn’t like his vision. They tried to stop him every way they could. Seven of the railroads finally came together and accused him of violating Interstate Commerce laws. This law prevented one person or management to have a common interest in two or more carriers without ICC’s approval. The railroads lobbied the ICC and his approval was blocked.
What did McLean do?
In 1955, he sold his 75% interest in McLean Trucking, and took out a $42 million loan to help bring his ideas to life. He bought the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company for $7 million and renamed it Sea-Land Shipping. Besides some old rusted ships, he needed their docking rights at many of the port cities which he was targeting. Now he could finally experiment with the best ways to load and unload cargo from trucks to ships and vice versa. He continued to tinker with different crate sizes, procedures, and techniques.
He redesigned truck trailers into two parts, a truck bed on wheels, and a container or box trailer that fit on top. He patented a steel-reinforced corner post structure, which allow the containers to be picked up by their wheeled platforms and also allowed them the strength to be stacked.
In April 1956, he finished converting a World War II tanker named Ideal X and fit 58 of his patented containers on his specially made deck along with 15,000 tons of petroleum. The Ideal X would sail from Newark to Houston. When the ship arrived in Houston to an audience of industry veterans and transportation authorities the containers were unloaded onto trailer beds. They were inspected and the contents were dry. He passed the first test. Customers also liked how the cargo was safe and secure in steel containers. The trip also proved that transportation costs were 25% cheaper than conventional methods even before the necessary infrastructure investment was put in place. But the fight was not over.
McLean had to convince port authorities to invest millions into rebuilding their ports for this new way of intermodal transportation. It would take years of perseverance. Finally the Port of Oakland agreed to invest $600,000 in the early 1960’s. Slowly but surely more and more signed up because it would solidify shipping as a viable and efficient mode of transporting cargo.
During the 1960’s, McLean continued to improve his container designs and filing more patents. He engaged an engineer by the name of Keith Tantlinger to help him. In a rather genius maneuver, he then gave the patent designs royalty free to the Industrial Organization for Standardization (ISO). This helped catapult his designs to the industry standard.
By 1969, SeaLand Industries was the largest cargo-shipping business in the world, and R. J. Reynolds purchased the company that year for $160 million.
In 1978, McLean burst back on the shipping scene after introducing and developing large “econoships” that would carry cargo at the equator while smaller ships came and went from them, picking up and delivering containers.
Malcom McLean died in 2001. His impact on transportation is right up there with Henry Ford and yet his story remains relatively unknown.