(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
You may have never heard of American entrepreneur Malcolm Purcel McClean, but you have greatly benefited from his work. The son of a North Carolina farmer, McLean went into the trucking business. One day watching the process of loading a shipment of cotton from trucks to a ship, he had a rather brilliant but simple idea:
I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off a truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship. Once there, every sling had to be unloaded, and the cargo stowed properly. The thought occurred to me, as I waited around that day, that it would be easier to lift my trailer up and, without any of its contents being touched, put it on the ship.
Eventually this idea evolved into simply taking the box rather than the entire truck and box onto a ship. In 1955 McLean rolled the entrepreneurial dice, buying two WWII era oil tankers and securing a loan to purchase $42 million worth of docking, shipbuilding, and repair facilities. He refitted the ships and designed trailers to go both below or on the decks of the ships. In April 26th, 1956 his first loaded ship successfully set forth from Port Newark, New Jersey, headed for Houston, Texas.
You knew there would be a Texas angle in this story right? In any case that date is now regarded as a historical marker in maritime history. When McLean passed away in 2001, his obituary noted that the sea transport of goods had not changed much between the time of the Phoenicians and 1956. McLean’s shipping containers enormously decreased the labor and the cost of shipping goods by sea. In 1956 it cost $5.86 per ton for longshoremen to load cargo- McLean’s technique reduced that cost to 16 cents per ton.
Memo to the Bernie Sanders/Pat Buchanan anti-trade Axis of Ignorance: an academic evaluation teased out the impact of containerization on the increase in world trade from that of tariff reductions. Containerization had a larger impact than free trade agreements, which means McLean deserves some of the credit for things like:
Like many successful entrepreneurs, the progress McLean brought determined enemies- especially among unionized dock workers. Oh if we could only forego all of this progress, especially for the poor, so that we could go back to having more dock workers, more expensive goods and more global poverty! In 1980 the United States Supreme Court ruled against dock worker unions who were exploiting antiquated provisions to get paid for work that no longer needed doing.
McLean died a successful but publicity shy man who made the world a much better place while making a fortune for himself that captured only the smallest fraction of the prosperity unleashed by his innovation.
Bonus- innovators in construction have begun using shipping containers to make buildings like: