The birth of the sea container

Some 65 years ago, seaports were often a jumble of ships that were left docked for too long. It sometimes took a week to unload and load a cargo ship and the swarm of ships at the quayside was inefficient and caused delays
Aad Storm
Wed, 07 Apr 2021 min read

This irritated American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean and so he came up with a steel box that revolutionised the traditional general cargo loading and unloading method of the time. McLean thus became the 'father' of containerisation and ensured the unprecedented growth of world trade.

It is hard to imagine now, but until well into the 1960s the loading and unloading of (sea-going) ships was still largely done by hand. Trucks lined up on the quay. The cargo was first placed on the quay and then picked up by dockers and stevedores and stowed in the ship’s hold. An expression from those days was: 'Without a good stevedore, the ship might sink'. Unloading and loading cargo ships was heavy, labour-intensive and not without danger.

How one lorry driver dramatically changed the way the world trades

Obviously, all this took a lot of time. In fact, it was truck driver Malcom McLean (14 November 1913 - 25 May 2001) who came up with a very simple solution. Load all those loose parts into a steel box, hoist it aboard a ship and off you go.

The idea came to him just before Thanksgiving Day in 1937. That day he was standing in line for hours waiting for his truck, loaded with cotton bales, to be unloaded at a pier in New Jersey. Ultimately it took him almost 20 years to realise his idea but, in that time, his company, McLean Trucking Company, had grown into one of the largest road transportation companies in the United States.

Even though he had sold his company before it went public on 6 January 1958, he had not abandoned the idea of transporting freight in boxes. McLean used that money to buy the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company in 1955 before renaming it Sea-Land Service in 1960. Sea-Land (SeaLand), the world's first container shipping company, is now part of Maersk.

On April 23, 1956, the loading of Ideal X, a tanker converted by McLean, began. Using a crane, 58 aluminium "truck bodies" – trailers – were lifted aboard the ship that sailed between Newark and Houston. By the way, history tells us that a few months earlier the Clifford J. Rogers was already shipping containers and not Malcom McLean's Ideal X.

However, it also turned out to be too inefficient to lift an entire trailer and load on board. The colossus still took up too much space.

The invention of the container

Together with engineer and inventor Keith Tantlinger, McLean designed what is now the standard shipping container. Tantlinger came up with the corner blocks, which made it easy to lift a container, and for securing it he designed the twistlock mechanism. This meant that they could be stacked on top of each other like Lego.

But the inventor went a step further, making it the world standard. Tantlinger managed to convince McLean to make the patented design available to the International Organization for Standardization at no cost, thus bringing about a major growth in the industry. Thanks to this design, the international standardisation of shipping containers was a fact.

Sea-Land's first container-only vessel was the Gateway City which made its maiden voyage on October 4, 1957, transporting 226 fully loaded containers. The McLean container ship had its own gantry cranes on board to load and unload them. At the end of the 1960s, McLean's container shipping company had 27,000 of its own containers, 36 container ships, and served approximately 30 ports, including Rotterdam.

However, the strength of the container cannot be separated from an infrastructure in logistics that is tailored to its standard requirements: container ships, cranes on the quay, specially-adapted trains, trucks, inland vessels, and information and communication technology.

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