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The Man Who Reinvented Intermodal Transportation

Malcom McLean

Intermodal transportation has been around since the late 18th century. However, technical and infrastructure problems slowed its progress. In the mid-20th century, trucking company owner Malcom McLean invented the shipping container, and launched intermodal transportation into the fast-paced business it is today. The shipping container is now one of the most recognizable aspects of the shipping industry and has arguably ushered in the modern era of globalization.

Malcolm McLean (1913–2001)

Malcolm McLean grew up on a farm in North Carolina. His first business endeavor was selling eggs from his parents’ farm. He graduated and started working during the Great Depression. Then, he worked at a petrol station. He managed to gain enough experience to start his own trucking company. It began with one truck, driven by Malcolm McLean. Within a few years, he had saved enough to purchase more trucks, and hire drivers to help him carry the workload. McLean focused on providing cost-effective transportation between farmers and companies.

Mclean started thinking about containerization during routine delivery services. He transferred cotton from truck to ship for international transportation. While at the port, he noticed the amount of waste involved in individually moving small crates. The idea for the first container was born, but it was not realized until much later.

At first, government regulation stymied his long-term goals for containerization. He sold his company, McLean Trucking, in 1955 for $6 million. At the time, his company included 1,800 trucks. Selling the company was a carefully calculated risk aimed at moving toward a more efficient mode of transportation.

The Creation and Adoption of Containerization

 McLean tested his containerization concept by purchasing 2 oil tankers and investing in the infrastructure to support a containerized port interaction. He retrofitted the tankers to hold large trailer-like containers both above and below decks. The innovative and astute entrepreneur realized his dream with the launch of the first container ship in 1956. The first containerized voyage of Ideal X marked a turning point in global history.

Driven by a desire to decrease overall shipping costs and overcome current government regulation obstacles, McLean bought Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and changed the name to SeaLand Industries. The company became the largest international cargo-shipping business.

The containerization solution made transportation between land and sea faster and more cost-effective. Fewer laborers were required, and the risk of theft and damage in transit diminished significantly. During the Vietnam War, McLean added Asia to his shipping network, maximizing the reach of intermodal transportation.

Modern Containerization

In 1996, New York celebrated Malcolm McLean publicly for his contribution to the shipping industry. The year marked the 40th anniversary of Ideal X’s inaugural launch, and 90% of international trade relied on containerization. He has been described as the “man of the century” for his work.

Today, container ships are faster and more effective than ever. Intermodal transportation logistics services ensure that goods and services are delivered more efficiently than ever before. Companies are able to ensure the delivery of goods within a 24-hour window, sometimes less, due to well-planned global transportation.

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