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Leaders and Visionaries in Shipping – Malcom McLean

In any industry, there are Leaders and Visionaries who innovate, design, create and shape it, benefiting everyone in the chain..

The Maritime, Shipping, Freight, Logistics and Supply Chain industries are no exception..

Through a series of articles, Shipping and Freight Resource would like to pay tribute to Leaders and Visionaries who shaped the modern day shipping industry..

Today’s article is about Mr.Malcom McLean one of the Leaders and Visionaries who shaped the modern day shipping industry..


Who is Malcom McLean and why is he important in the shipping and freight industry..??


Containerised shipping is an important component of global trade.. In 2016 it contributed to an estimated value of more than US$4 trillion using approximately 130 million containers packed with various cargoes..

The humble and ubiquitous container which was created in 1956 is universally hailed as one of the greatest inventions of the modern world, one that completely changed the way in which business has been done since the 20th century and really and truly made the world a smaller place and the one true architect of Globalisation..

Here is the story in brief of Malcom Purcell McLean the man who has been dubbed as the Father of Containerisation..

Malcom Purcell McLean was born in 1913 near Maxton in southeastern North Carolina.. He started a small trucking company to transport farmers’ goods and supplies around the time of the great depression in the United States..

What started as a one truck company called McLean Trucking Company in 1930, eventually blossomed into a company with over 1,700 trucks..

During his truck driving days when Malcom was delivering goods to the docks, he realised that there were a lot of inefficiencies in the “break-bulk” method of shipping of goods and realised that these could be improved on..

He realised that he was spending most of the day waiting to deliver cotton bales watching the stevedores at work rather than being productive and putting his truck(s) in circulation which eventually meant wasted money and time..

He was wondering how easy it would be a possibility to lift the whole trailer and put it on the ship instead of just slinging, lifting, loading, offloading and unslinging the goods one by one..

But of course such ideas needed money and time.. Realising this, for the next decade and a half, Malcom concentrated on growing his trucking business and eventually by the early 1950s, he had grown his operation into the largest trucking fleet in the South and the fifth-largest in the country comprising of 1,776 trucks and thirty-seven transport terminals along the eastern seaboard of USA..

But although the business was growing, the seed he planted in his mind in 1937 kept crawling back and he knew that there must be a more efficient way to transport cargo along the US Coastline at least..

His mind was occupied with the thought and realisation that on a single ship he would be able to load hundreds of trailers free of many encumbrances that faced road transport such as fuel costs, labor costs, truck and trailer turnaround time, weight restrictions, wear and tear, maintenance and repairs on the trucks and trailers..

But there were also a few hitches in this plan, mainly the space occupied by the wheels of the trailer would take up a lot of space and no other cargo could be loaded above these trailers when they had the wheels..

So he came up with another brainwave of removing the wheels and loading just the trailer bodies which will allow him to not only reduce the space used but also allow for these trailers to be stacked on top of each other..

So essentially the plan was that a truck trailer without the wheels would be loaded with cargo and uplifted at one port, loaded on a ship and offloaded at another port, basically creating the skeleton for containerisation..

But on closer inspection, Malcom realised that buying trailer bodies and using trucks and trailers to cart them around was not going to be as easy as he thought..

Enter Keith Tantlinger, an Engineer who was roped in by Malcom to design containers that could be used to transport cargo instead of the trailer bodies originally envisoned.. Keith had already designed a 30′ container that had the capacity and strength to be stacked two high..

Image for Ideal-Malcom-Keith

After many discussions, debates, design changes and plans, the first lot of 58 containers were loaded on board the SS Ideal X, a converted World War II oil tanker, on 26th April 1956 from Port of Newark to Houston..

Thus began the journey of the shipping container and there has been no turning back for containerization since then..

Leaders and Visionaries - Shipping and Freight ResourceLoading of containers on the Ideal X was not a once off,  it was closely followed in 1957 by Gateway City which became the first cellular ship carrying more than 3 times the containers loaded on the Ideal X..

In 1960, Malcom McLean changed the name of his company from Pan-Atlantic to the famous Sea-Land Service and in 1962 a converted T-3 tankers called Elizabethport owned by Malcom McLean became the first container vessel to transit the Panama Canal from the US East Coast to the West Coast..

Thanks to Malcom McLean, the era of modern containerization had truly begun, transforming the industry, making shipping more profitable, paving the way for globalisation and shaping the modern world..

Although Malcom McLean was not the “inventor” of the shipping container, a fact he acknowledged himself, he was the pioneer who developed containerized shipping into an integrated, efficient system that it is today, transforming global commerce and carving himself a niche in history..

His innovative ideas transformed an entire industry and gave the world its first safe, reliable and cost-effective option to shipping cargo at around 5 times lower than the cost at which cargo was being shipped in the 1950s..

Every consumer goods imaginable traded today owes its lower price to the container revolution..

Malcom McLean’s innovative thoughts helped restructure and reinvent an industry allowing cargo to be shipped faster, cheaper, reducing pilferage, and shortening the ship/cargo loading and unloading times substantially..

In due course, ISO standards were set for containers and this enabled mass production and usage of standardised containers which also enabled the ports, container terminals and handling equipment to be standardized across the globe, the evolution of which has resulted in the current mega-ships capable of carrying more than 20,000 TEUs on a single ship..

22 years and going strong, today, the benefits of containerisation ranges from

  • Improved and quicker handling of cargo
  • Flexibility of cargo operation
  • Door to Door movement using same unit
  • Cargo security
  • Intermodal and multimodal operations allowing cargo to reach every nook and cranny of the world whether by sea or land
  • Cheaper per unit shipping which savings could be passed on to consumers

As per Clarksons Reasearch, from 1971-1996 (20 years after containers first came in to being), there was 41 million TEUs of additional trade generated with about 3 million TEUs of container capacity delivered to serve the global industry..

From 1997 till 2016 (60th year of containerisation) this increased to 136 million TEUs of additional trade with 20 million TEU capacity delivered..

Containerisation has also enabled end to end seamless supply chain possibilities which has created further growth, employment and developmental opportunities..

I close with the words of Martin Stopford, head of research at Clarksons who noted

Container shipping certainly is the great hidden wonder of the world, a vastly underrated business. It has shrunk the planet and brought about a revolution, because the cost of shipping boxes is so cheap. People talk about the contribution made by the likes of Microsoft. But container shipping has got to be among the 10 most influential industries over the past 30 years.

Sources :

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  1. “Containers” were not new, is true in the sens that individual items have always been packed into larger containers for ease of handling..
    However, the concept of a significant larger, modular, re-usable, steel box that was just as at home on a rail car, or truck chassis or ship or barge is, I believe, the work and persistence of McLean Trucking and and later their re-branded Sea-Land Service

  2. Thanks Hariesh,
    McLean Trucking did in fact run many East Coast trips with his trailers on a ships deck.
    This enabled him to present his cargo last minute before sailing and be FIRST OFF the vessel at destination. a saving of up to five days!
    It was the ZERO SHRINKAGE that galvanised his company into developing this further.
    No cargo disappeared or was stolen between loading an turn-in to load port and exit port gates at desitnation.
    He then went on to shipping removable trailer boxes, leaving the chassis behind.
    later once the ss Ideal X and her sister ship were plying trades, his company developed the corner casting as we know it today- and patented it very thoroughly.
    In fact the US government had to force him t sell the patent rights in order for the ISO to move forward and present an International Standard.
    This in turn allowed all port and handing terminals to build a once-device-lifts-all container spreader.
    This development paved the way to global container development.


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