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A History of the Container
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A History of the Container

Sometimes people are born whose vocation is to change the world.

It is difficult to find the reasons why such people are born or to discover some regularity in their births or to forecast when it will happen next time. Maybe, it is not necessary at all. Time transforms their lives into romantic legends and numerous narrators create epics. However, it only their deeds and achievements that are of importance for the mankind.

In 1914, a boy was born to the big family of the McLean’s, ordinary American farmers residing somewhere in North Carolina. He was given the name of Malcolm (late in life he changed his given name to Malcom). Everyone was sure that the rapidly growing boy will become a farmer and spend the rest of his life in the American hinterland. It did not happen. But hardly anyone of the McLeans was sorry about that.

Someone may be disappointed but McLean was growing as an ordinary boy. Nothing distinguished him from his peers but one feature: Mclean was a man of vision. Because of that he was frequently scorned by adults: the future farmer should not be up in the clouds but rather should stand firmly on the soil that feeds him.

Time was passing by and McLean was getting older. After graduating from high school, he was employed at a pump station; there were no hopes for anything better. After several years with a fuelling nozzle in hand and suffocating odor of gasoline in his mouth McLean understood that he should look for his fortune somewhere else. He saved enough money to buy his first truck. It seems that in spite of everything McLean remained a man of vision.
What will a young romantic man do when he can finally breeze without feeling acid gasoline odor? A young man in front of whom the whole world opens? No doubt, he will roam across the country in search of his dream and hoping someday to catch it. Or, maybe, to burn off failing to reach the Sun … Anyone, but not a farmer-to-be who has well learned that the soil you stand on is the most important thing in your life.
For McLean, his truck was a working tool. He was shipping freights to the port on the truck and was earning small money. However, his business was rapidly growing and soon McLean could buy another truck and a couple of months later, the third one.
Do you expect that you will hear next the story of McLean, the owner of a trucking empire? It would have been so but for an episode in his life...

McLean was angrily walking back and forth on a pier in the port of Hoboken, New Jersey. It was already a month that he was coming daily to the port to control how his trucks were unloaded. Earlier it took no more than a week. The year 1937 was successful for McLean: he had won a lot of orders and lucrative deals many of which could go wrong because of that annoying delay. However, he could do nothing but watch longshoremen with gloomy and weather-beaten faces unbearably slowly carrying boxes to the vessel. McLean was deep in his thoughts: “So slowly … Damned slowly … Why could not one pack all boxes into a larger box and load it with a crane directly to vessel. Hey, but why not?”

This fraction of second changed everything.

Nineteen years passed before McLean, whose idea was not supported by anyone in 1937, started experiments with container shipment after having invested his own money into those experiments. By that time he had become the owner of a company whose fleet consisted of more than 2,000 trucks but McLean did not abandon the idea that came to his mind in the port of Hoboken.

The container constructed by McLean was an airtight metal box that safely protected cargo both from external hazards including theft and internal damages such as condensate. McLean sized his container in a rather arbitrary way (8  2.44  2.44 m) being guided by the dimensions of the trucks operated at that time in the US. Next Malcolm dismounted wheels from trailers, piled them up and created in this way the first container carrier. He found supporters who helped him establish Sea-Land, a forwarding company, and shortly after that the company enjoyed its first success. No doubt there were people who were against the innovation: the new method of shipping cargos required significant investments and introduction of a unified infrastructure in all major ports and shipping companies. However, it is unwise to oppose an idea that is simple and therefore great. The history teaches us that in such a case recognition is just a matter of time. In 1966, when McLean launched the first transatlantic shipping line, total containerization of the shipping business was set to become reality.

However, even Mclean, the man of vision, could hardly imagine the success of his invention in the years to come. Shipping between Europe and Australia began; first standards for containers were published; routes connecting Far East and Europe were established; two-deck container cars appeared ... As a result of ongoing progress in shipbuilding, 800-TEU bay container ships were built followed by 1,000, 3,500, 4,500, and up to 12,000-TEU vessels.

McLean’s innovation gave a boost to the shipping industry. It allowed goods to be shipped to any p on the globe. The procedure of unloading vehicles, which many years ago inspired McLean, significantly simplified: one can see it easily by comparing the port/route time ratio which is now 20:80 as against earlier 50:50. The cost of shipment plummeted by 97%! In a word, the motto “Rapidly, Inexpensively, Safely” was no longer an ordinary advertising slogan but became a reality. Many new routes connect all continents; goods are delivered from all countries boosting the world trade and, in particular, the economies of third-world countries.
Nowadays, over 95% of freights are shipped by sea. Containers became universal: McLean patented his invention but – (attention!) – allowed shippers to use it free of charge. Both containers and shipping technologies feature ongoing progress. Containers that earlier could only be used for shipping general cargo are now used for delivery of bulk and liquid commodities. No doubt, progress in container shipment will not halt. The most important thing is to boldly look forward as Malcom McLean did.

Malcom McLean was the man who failed to become a farmer but succeeded in bettering the world.

During all his life Malcom McLean was a man of vision.