The Truckie Who Developed the Concept of Containerisation

One day in the US in 1937 while sitting in his truck waiting in a line of other trucks to unload his bales of cotton onto a ship, Malcolm Mclean first began to think of improving the efficiency of this transport process. It was not until nearly twenty years later, when increased road trailer charges began to bite that it became economically feasible to do something about it. With sea transport becoming cheaper than road haulage, Mclean envisaged trucks feeding centralized sea terminals rather than traversing the entire east coast of America by road. In other words, making the ship responsible for the majority of the travel.

Malcolm McLean at railing, Port Newark in 1957)

Although the concept of containers was already being used by Seatrain with its roll-on-roll-off containers on wheels, McLean redesigned his trucks as a truck bed on wheels on which could be carried an independent container. But further than this, he thought that the containers should be of a standard size and design so that they could be stacked aboard ships.

To this end McLean acquired the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company that had shipping and docking rights in prime eastern US ports, and immediately began construction of special ships to carry his containers. The first voyage took place in 1956 from Port Newark to Houston. The cost savings proved spectacular and McLean had little trouble finding new customers.

Persuading Port Authorities to redesign their ports to accommodate the new intermodal transport operation was a bigger task. In spite of the backing of the New York Port Authority chairman, other port authorities were slow to come to the party – until the huge cost savings became apparent. The other threat was to the livelihood of the waterside workers because many of them would no longer be required. However, the very existence of seaboard shipping was being threatened by road and rail transport, and port officials thought it better to have fewer workers in a prosperous enterprise than many workers in a declining one.

In less than fifteen years Malcolm McLean had built the largest cargo-carrying business – SeaLand – in the world. Although the idea of containers was not his, McLean’s efforts to standardize their design, and his courage to put it into practice lead to a revolution in the world’s cargo trade.

Ship loading containers at Port of Brisbane (photo Karen Ludlow)

(Extract from ‘The Port of Brisbane – Its People and Its Personalities’ Peter Ludlow 2012)