24 December 2015

The birth of “the greatest advance in packaging since the paper bag” took place in 1956 when an elderly oil tanker, the SS Ideal X , set sail from Port Newark, New Jersey bound for Houston. Her deck had been strengthened to accommodate 58 cargo packed steel boxes each some 30’ long.

Malcolm McLean, the system’s inventor, had the original idea when, as a truck driver in 1937, he watched stevedores putting crates into a sling to be lifted into the hold of a ship. There the sling had to be unloaded, and the cargo stowed. “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.”

The traditional method cost $5.86 a ton. When the Ideal X berthed in Houston with its freight intact, the clients who had put their faith in containerisation paid just 16 cents a ton, a 39-fold saving.  Malcolm McLean’s risk paid off.  He had sold his trucking business to invest in the venture which went on to become Sea-Land.

For this shipping revolution to go global, he realised that any container had to work in any port. The design had be standardised. So he filed a patent in 1968 for the design which is universal in every part of the world to this day.  

A year later the man who bought his first second-hand truck with savings as a petrol pump attendant sold his share in Sea Land for $160 million. By then it was the world’s biggest container carrier.

On the 40th anniversary of the Ideal X’s pioneering voyage in1996, around 90% of world trade was moving in containers on specially designed ships. Bill Clinton said simply that containerisation had helped to “fuel the world's economy”.