An obsolete tanker ship arrived at the Port of Houston from Newark, New Jersey, on May 1, 1956. The Ideal-X was carrying what appeared at first to be an unremarkable cargo: 58 metal boxes, each one 40 feet long. While dozens of ships landed, loaded and unloaded their cargoes that day, the Ideal-X did it in a way that would revolutionize the shipping industry and boost the world economy.
Malcolm McLean, a truck driver from North Carolina, came up with the idea of the shipping container as he hauled loads along the East Coast. He noticed how each item came in a different container, making it nearly impossible to accomplish simple tasks in the most efficient way. Despite his complete lack of experience in the maritime industry, McLean knew that there had to be a better way.
Instead of moving each item from the truck to the ship, McLean’s idea involved taking the box-shaped trailer on his truck, making it removable, and transporting the container directly onboard the ship. This innovation would save time and labor during the loading and unloading processes, as well as allowing ships to haul more goods on each trip. All of these improvements would bring down shipping costs, which would allow shipping companies to transport more and different goods for the same price.
There was only one problem: the infrastructure for such an idea didn’t exist in the 1950s. McLean sold his trucking company and used the funds to develop the cranes, create the containers, and purchase a small, out-of-date vessel to test his idea. When his ship arrived in Houston, he demonstrated to the tradition-bound shipping industry how his containers could make them much more profitable.
Standardized containers allowed the shipping industry to haul different goods from various locations around the world at a fraction of the price. Today, shipping containers are used in nearly every aspect of shipping. In 2016, 60 years after McLean’s first shipment arrived, more than 10 million shipping containers arrived in U.S. ports. Used shipping containers are now used in construction, from homes and office buildings to swimming pools. What started out as a revolution in the shipping industry now looks to take over on land as well.