Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Ship that Changed the World

A few months ago, I wrote about plans to build the biggest ships ever; the Danish shipping giant Maersk has ordered ten ships, each of which will hold 18,000 containers of cargo. My article points to several others that explain the importance of such ships to the way the world space-economy is organized today. Simply put, globalization is a process that has been under way for centuries, but globalization as we have come to understand it would not have been possible without the development of standardized cargo containers.

As I explain in that post, I have been interested in the phenomenon ever since I studied the geography of transportation as an undergraduate. Only today did I realize, however, that one person is credited with this critical innovation: Malcom McLean. I have been enjoying Simon Winchester's Atlantic, and am currently reading a chapter on the environmental impacts of human transportation across the great ocean. It is from this chapter that I learned of McLean, a former truck driver who outfitted the Ideal-X to carry 58 standard containers from Newark to Houston in 1956.

That first shipment took place the same year that President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System, which had both military and commercial goals, and did much to facilitate the global transport system of which containerization was to become such an integral part. An article about the Ideal-X on Hofstra University's Geography of Transportation web site explains the cost differential that made the idea so attractive to McLean. Finding a way to reduce the cost of loading cargo by more than 90 percent contributed to a career that eventually made him one of the wealthiest individuals in the United States. The original ship was sold for scrap in 1991; his company eventually became part of Maersk.

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