A Tribute

On more than one occasion in the past few weeks we’ve referred to Doug Tilden’s assessment of the frustrating congestion in and around container ports caused by the port’s conventional methods of operation. “We have to find a different way to operate, or else we are not going to be able to handle trade”, was the way he put it. Years ago someone else found himself in a position to make a similar comment. It was Malcolm McLean, and he was sitting in one of his trucks, waiting his turn at dockside, just like so many drivers are doing now. He had hauled bales of cotton to Hoboken and waited almost the whole day for his truck to be unloaded. “There’s gotta be a better way”, he must have been thinking, and those frustrating moments led to his determination to do something about the loss of precious time. He did exactly what Doug Tilden is telling us to do now. He figured out a different way to operate back then, and the entire world has cashed in on his concept.

Last year, FAIRPLAY, the British maritime journal, celebrated its 120th Anniversary by asking its readers to vote for the one they considered to be the most significant person in shipping in the last 120 years. You guessed it. Mr. McLean won, and it wasn’t even close. FAIRPLAY commented, “Televisions we can do without. Aircraft are useful, but not essential. Even 15 years ago, most business functioned perfectly well without computers. But take away containers, and the global economy would collapse overnight”. A pretty accurate appraisal of Mr. McLean’s contribution. A pretty accurate measurement would be the estimate that there are enough containers in the world today to build an 8-foot high wall twice around the equator.

The results of the poll and the comment by FAIRPLAY should tell us a thing or two about the shipping industry. Mr. McLean’s original concept would undergo subtle but necessary operational changes as time went on, and here in the 21st century, the rapid annual growth in cargo volumes demands an even more drastic change. At first, the whole truck trailer was loaded onto the container ship, wheels and all, until someone figured out “a different way to operate”. So they left the wheels behind. Then the spreader was invented … again, another time-saver, and “a different way to operate”. Then twistlocks came into play, followed by the installation of gantry cranes at dockside and even aboard the vessel itself. “Different ways to operate”, but not complex by any stretch of the imagination.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”… most of the time, anyway. More often than not, though, it’s the frustration rather than necessity that leads to bigger and better things. All along the way, as you would suspect, there would be opposition to every one of the subtle alterations that have appeared in port operations because it’s part of human nature to resist change. It’s the frustration that eventually forces people to open their minds. Mr. McLean encountered more opposition in the transformation than anyone else because his idea was a momentous one. It was more than subtle because it called for wholesale change. Revolutionary change. Port operators saw only the new expense. Longshore workers felt their jobs would be eliminated. Few had the foresight to know what this revolution would mean to them and to the world’s economy, but Mr. McLean knew. He knew that frustration called for a “different way to operate”.