By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Sixty years ago this week, Malcom McLean, trucking mogul turned shipping magnate, tilted the shipping world on its axis when the 524-foot Ideal X cast off from Berth 24 at the foot of Marsh Street in Port Newark en route to Houston, Texas carrying 58 containers on its maiden voyage.
To many in the shipping world, Ideal X signaled a sea change in the maritime industry, putting into practice a powerful idea that had played at the back of McLean’s mind since 1937 when he was the sole driver for his company, McLean Trucking. McLean was a man born to set trends, not follow them. Had he not spent what seemed to be wasted hours idling at Hoboken, frustrated, waiting to unload his truckload of cotton bales and thinking there had to be a better way to load cargo aboard ships than piece by piece, containerization might not have turned out the same.
After Ideal X came the 450-foot Gateway City, which left Port Newark the following year on Oct. 4, 1957, the same day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first earth-orbiting satellite. The pioneering Gateway City carried more than three times the number of containers as the Ideal X. With her voyage came the awareness of a new normal in shipping: the era of modern containerization was underway. Containerships were transforming the industry by enabling more cargo to be placed on board and creating efficiencies, making shipping more profitable and opening up new global markets.
“I knew what was going on [in containerization] was revolutionary. That’s why I wanted to be a part of it,” said Charles Cushing, who was McLean’s first full-time engineer at the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, eventually becoming Chief Naval Architect at McLean’s Sea-Land Service.
The year before Ideal X sailed, McLean had sold his trucking company for $25 million and purchased Pan-Atlantic, (which eventually became Sea-Land), and the Gulf Florida Terminal Company from Waterman Steamship Corporation, with the idea of using Pan-Atlantic’s vessels and operating rights to carry containers.
McLean wanted the best people. To get them he conducted the shipping world’s equivalent of the NBA lottery. He wanted only top picks, well-educated people who were still down to earth enough to mix it up with the truckers and pitch pennies with the best of them. Many were invited to Newark for an interview; a handful were chosen. Cushing went to work fulltime for McLean in 1960.
“I was extremely lucky to get a job at Pan-Atlantic,” Cushing recalled. “Malcom started out by putting truck bodies on ships. [Then] in 1957, he bought six old World War II break bulk cargo ships, gutted them and began putting cells in them to hold containers – The first cellular ship was the Gateway City. I was still a student at MIT in 1958, but I sailed on the Gateway City during a vacation.”
After joining McLean at Pan-Atlantic, Cushing began working on the basic design features that became characteristic of modern containerships – stacks of containers in customized cells below deck and additional stacked containers atop each other as deck cargo.
McLean ran into fierce resistance in his effort to transform the industry. Venerable ocean-going steamship operators, particularly British companies, regarded McLean as an unwelcome maverick and considered containerization a marginal idea. They threatened distilleries in an effort to keep their product off the first containerships. However, J & B Scotch broke from the pack and was among Pan-Atlantic’s first shipments across the Atlantic. Other distilleries would follow. By 1963, J&B Scotch was a huge hit in the U.S. and selling one million cases per year.
McLean persisted and expanded his shipping operations to Puerto Rico in 1958, to the West Coast via the Panama Canal in 1962, and north to Alaska that same year. In 1972, Sea-Land acquired eight new containerships able to reduce ocean crossings by a full day, the fastest merchant ships ever built. They could carry more than 1,000 containers compared to Gateway City’s 226 and the Ideal X’s 58. Ever-larger ships continue to this day with vessels able to carry 20,000 containers and more.
Cushing worked for McLean until 1968, before founding C.R. Cushing & Co., a naval architecture firm in New York City that has designed more than 250 vessels built in the U.S. and abroad, and completed some 3,000 projects. Cushing and other shipping industry leaders established the McLean Container Center at the Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point to preserve records, photographs, and other items documenting the history of containerization.
On the morning of McLean’s funeral in 2001, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor. Cushing delivered the eulogy. A newspaper editorial stated that “McLean ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade.” Forbes Magazine called him “one of the few men who changed the world.”
Excerpted from the documentary, Winds of Change, produced in part by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Malcom McLean explains the deceptively simple idea behind containerization.