Few would be able to name the person who invented the shipping container but this man changed international trade forever.
Not as desirable as the iPhone, not as exciting as World Wide Web, not as important as the development of vaccines, most people would be hard pressed to include the shipping container in their top 10 of inventions that changed the world. Nonetheless, the invention of the shipping container and its impact on global trade had huge significance and has helped shape the growth of import and export markets.
So who did invent the shipping container?
The shipping container was invented by an American businessman called Malcolm McLean. In 1935 he and his siblings started a haulage company in North Carolina. By 1952 the business had grown from just one truck to an entire fleet and McLean started to develop plans to transported his trucks by ship along the US coast to deliver goods to New York. However, he realised that this would be inefficient in terms of space, with the trucks taking up space that would be better used for cargo. He needed to separate the storage container from the vehicle chassis.
McLean bought two World War II tankers and converted them to carry containers above and below deck. At the same time, he was working on the design of a container and a trailer chassis that would enable the container to be removed. In 1956 the first converted tanker was loaded with containers, initially called trailer vans, and sailed from New Jersey to the Port of Houston in Texas.
From that first journey, the movement of cargo by ship was revolutionised. Previously, cargo would be loaded and unloaded by hand, requiring a lot of labour which also cost. The introduction of containers not only reduced loading and unloading time, it significantly reduced the cost.
Having set up a regular service between New York, Florida and Texas, McLean branched out and set up a service between the States and Puerto Rico, adding more and more routes over the following years, including Rotterdam, Bremen and Grangemouth in Scotland. By 1967 McLean’s company was servicing South Vietnam and additional routes were established in the Far East.
The birth of standardised containers
Not only was McLean responsible for the invention of the shipping container but he was also responsible for the standardisation of containers through his patent-protected designs. He made his patents available by giving a royalty-free lease to the International Organization for Standardization and this subsequently paved the way for competitors to enter the market.
The rest, as they say, is history. McLean’s simple solution to a transport issue – an intermodal container that can be transported by road, rail and/or sea without the need to unload the cargo until it reaches its destination – revolutionised how ports operated, opened up countless routes connecting different countries and made the transport of countless goods possible. And even today, all shipping containers are built to the specifications originated by Malcolm McLean – their length, width and height.