The Golden Anniversary

Hardly a day goes by in the world of containerization that Mr. Malcolm McLean’s name is not mentioned. Although his name has become synonymous with containerization, there were few believers in the beginning. There were doubting Thomases and devil’s advocates everywhere. There were even those who insisted that his motive was to put longshoremen out of work.

Foresight? Then, as now, there was very little. The fact that he had become a leader in the trucking field meant nothing to maritime authorities in those days. He was considered a genius by those who were close to him, but to the ill-informed he was thought to be somewhat eccentric. “One doesn’t change horses in the middle of the stream … if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … why not leave well enough alone?” How often do you suppose Mr. McLean encountered those time-worn phrases?

He knew better than anyone else though that “well enough” just wasn’t good enough. He saw that port operations had become afflicted, and infected, with many breakdowns and indeed needed fixing. And he saw that if a switch in mounts did not take place … in the middle of the rushing waters … the industry would be crushed under the pressures of an emerging third world.

With little encouragement, Mr. McLean gambled his whole wad on what he knew was a sure thing. Hindsight being better than foresight, all of us nowadays can see that it was a sure thing. But 50 years ago when the chips were on the line, we wouldn’t have backed him. Like it or not, we would have joined up with the naysayers and scoffers. Admit it.

Looking back in this website, under the “Container Handling” heading, you’ll see our evaluation of Mr. McLean’s efforts. Our after-the-fact assessment is what he was envisioning:

“Containerization had its beginnings more than 40 years ago and is undeniably the most significant advance in the history of commerce. A wide array of handling equipment and apparatus has developed in conjunction with this innovative concept, and has contributed to the spectacular growth of international trade. In years past, when all cargo was ‘breakbulk’, it took 300 longshoremen approximately 9 days to offload and load a 10,000 ton conventional cargo ship. Containerships, on the other hand, can be offloaded and loaded in less than half that time by less than 50 longshoremen, in spite of the fact that containerships of comparable size carry more than ten times the volume of cargo. Containerships are thus able to complete more voyages and generate higher profits than conventional cargo ships. [Mr. McLean was predicting all this but he was ignored.]

Our assessment concluded with these words: “The manageability of these uniformly structured containers has predictably encouraged production, promoted consumerism, and produced modern and diverse means of transportation, but the consequent logjam of irretrievable products has turned into an unforeseen worldwide logistic nightmare.”

[If Mr. McLean was still with us, what do you suppose he’d be saying to those who are ignoring the solutions we’ve proposed for today’s “unforeseen worldwide logistic nightmare”?]