Malcom Purcell McLean, born in 1913 in Maxton, North Carolina, was an American transport entrepreneur who was central to the widespread adoption of the shipping container which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. He is hence often called “the father of containerization”; even though the concept had been introduced more than 100 years previously on the railways of Britain, following even earlier attempts on the canals.
In 1956, McLean developed the metal shipping container, which replaced the traditional break bulk method of handling dry goods and revolutionized the transport of goods and cargo worldwide.
He later founded Sea-Land Service, Inc., one of the pioneers in the intermodal cargo transport business.
McLean was named “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.
With only a high school education, McLean pumped gas at a service station near his hometown and saved enough money by 1934 to buy a second-hand truck for $120. He and his sister, Clara McLean, and brother, Jim McLean, founded McLean Trucking Co. Based out of Red Springs, North Carolina, McLean Trucking started out hauling empty tobacco barrels – with Malcom as one of the drivers.
From that beginning, with his single pickup truck, he built it into the second-largest trucking company in the U.S., with 1770 trucks and 32 terminals. On January 6, 1958; after McLean had sold his interest in the company; McLean Trucking became the first trucking company in the nation to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The idea of transporting trucks on ships was put into practice during World War II, and in the early 1950s McLean decided to attempt it commercially. By 1953, he was developing plans to carry his company’s trucks on ships along the U.S. Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to New York.
It soon became apparent that “trailerships,” as they were called, would be inefficient because of the large waste in potential cargo space on board the vessel, known as broken stowage.
McLean modified his original concept into loading just the containers, not the chassis, onto the ships, hence the designation containership or “box” ship. At the time, U.S. regulations would not allow a trucking company to own a shipping line.
In 1955, McLean sold his trucking company for $25 million and purchased the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and the Gulf Florida Terminal Company from Waterman Steamship Corporation, with the idea of using Pan-Atlantic’s vessels and operating rights to carry containers.
These purchases were made under the name of a newly formed corporation called McLean Industries, Inc of New York. Later the same year, McLean Industries acquired the capital stock of Waterman Steamship Corporation.
McLean secured a bank loan for $500 million and in January 1956 bought two World War II T-2 tankers, which he converted to carry containers on and under deck. McLean oversaw the construction of wooden shelter decks, known as Mechano decking. This was a common practice in World War II for the carriage of oversized cargo, such as aircraft. It took several months to refit the ships, construct containers to carry on and below the vessels’ decks and design trailer chassis to allow removable containers.
On April 26, 1956, with 100 invited dignitaries on hand, one of the converted tankers, the SS Ideal-X (informally dubbed the “SS Maxton” after McLean’s hometown in North Carolina), was loaded and sailed from the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, New Jersey, for the Port of Houston, Texas, carrying fifty eight 35-foot (11 m) containers, along with a regular load of liquid tank cargo.
In 1956, most cargo was loaded and unloaded by hand by longshoremen. Hand-loading a ship cost $5.86 a ton at that time. Using containers, it cost only 16 cents a ton to load a ship, a 36-fold savings. Containerization also greatly reduced the time to load and unload ships. McLean knew “A ship earns money only when she’s at sea,” and based his business on that efficiency.
McLean died at his home on the East Side of Manhattan on May 25, 2001, age 87.
McLean died in relative obscurity, although he was influential in the world’s economic growth in the 20th century.
Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.”
On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.