Malcolm McLean was born in North Carolina in 1913. His family gave him an old truck when he graduated from high school in lieu of supporting his college education. Malcolm and his two siblings founded McLean Trucking. They got jobs hauling empty tobacco barrels and dirt.
During World War II, the necessity of transporting materials for the war effort began to change thinking about new ways of using ships for more efficient transportation. McLean Trucking had expanded its truck fleet and was looking to use the new war-driven innovations to open new markets and reduce shipping costs.
Initially, he loaded the full trucks on ships to carry materials from North Carolina to New York. The concept was not efficient because there was a lot of wasted space. Malcolm came up with the idea of just shipping the container rather than the truck chassis. Malcolm bought two World War II containers as his first test of the containerization concept.
The first trial was run from New Jersey to Texas. It carried 58 containers. The trial was deeply opposed by the Longshoremen’s Union, which had a mob leadership. The initial run was a tremendous success in reducing shipment costs. The traditional approach of labor-intensive loading cost $5.86 a ton. The container approach reduced the cost to $.16 a ton.
In the next few years, the containerization concept grew in ships and routes. In order to expand, Malcolm needed to focus on the standardization of container designs. A patent could have been filed, but Malcolm decided not to follow through preferring instead to increase the use of container shipping worldwide.
The impact of what Malcolm McLean started has changed the world economy. It became economical to ship items across seas. This opened up economies in less-developed nations. It also changed the economic base of the U.S. With containerization came policy debates on trade policy.
Containerization is a concept that is here to stay even though the impacts of containerization are still unsettled. Beginnings often create societal disruption. Innovative ideas are often launched without full thought given to where innovations may take society.
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“When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.”– Chinese Proverb