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Gadsden GAB Featured: Back in Time – Container Ships

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The Gadsden GAB is a monthly publication that’s written by BG residents, for BG residents. Every two weeks, we’ll feature an article from the GAB on the Bishop Gadsden website. To read more, you can read the entire January edition here.

Back in Time – Container Ships

by Jack Hisley, M.D.

Historically, shipping goods by sea was an expensive venture. While ships gradually became larger and faster, shipping costs brought on by bottlenecks at the ports continued to rise. Stevedores, or longshoremen, earned good wages for jobs that were labor intensive and dangerous, along with unpredictable and irregular hours. Cargo remained in warehouses stacked on pallets waiting to be loaded by hand. Packing and safely securing oddly shaped freight in ships’ holds was a tedious art. Upon arrival at the destined port, a laborious unloading process, coupled with customs delays, created additional barriers. In the 1920s and 1930s as ever-increasing port costs continued to soar, U.S. trade began to shrink. As unions expanded, bribes and violence occurred among both union and non-union workers seeking coveted jobs on the docks.

A typical cargo arriving at the ports by trucks and by rail consisted of many items that varied in size, shape, and weight. For example, freight for a ship transporting 5,000 tons of cargo from Brooklyn’s Ship Yard to Germany arrived at the port by train and on over 1,100 trucks from 150 different cities. Masses of longshoremen were needed to load the ship – a process that took six days. The voyage to Germany lasted eleven days, and once there, four days were needed to unload the cargo. Port costs alone added a whopping 37 percent to the cost of shipping, while the actual sea voyage contributed another 11 percent to the overall cost.

Beginning in 1929, railroad companies worked on ways to solve the bottleneck problem at the ports. For example, Sea Train Line began using specially designed ships to carry boxcars. Unfortunately, the great experiment failed. Boxcars were too large and sat idle for long periods of time waiting to be filled. Also, the heavy boxcars added an unacceptable amount of weight to the cargo load.

Malcom Purcell McLean, who was born in 1913 in Maxton, North Carolina, was an innovator and astute businessman. In 1934, McLean began acquiring trucks he used to haul fuel and by 1945, he owned 162 trucks driven by self-employed drivers. His drivers earned bonus money for delivering their loads on time and accident-free. At the beginning of the Korean War, McLean owned and operated a fleet of 600 trucks. His business was efficient and profitable. McLean observed that after the war, coastal shipping was in decline, resulting in highways congested by increasing numbers of trucks transporting goods in a slow and costly manner. He reasoned that he could make money and enhance coastal shipping by loading his trailers on ships and picking up the trailers when the ships reached their destination ports, thereby decreasing the overall cost of shipping freight entirely by land. Always an innovator, McLean devised a way to lift a uniformed size trailer box off its wheels and load it on ships. When McLean shipped beer from New York to Miami, for example, he cut his transportation costs by 94 percent by purchasing his own ship, an oil tanker, and redesigning the deck to carry containers. Initially, McLean’s containers were all 33 feet long. After fighting unions, railroads, and the Interstate Commerce Commission for two long years, finally in April 1956, his innovative idea of container ships was accepted.

McLean’s ship, the Ideal X, sailed from New York to Texas on its maiden voyage with 58 containers loaded with all sorts of goods. Each container was loaded on board in a mere seven minutes and the entire loading process was completed in eight hours. Because of McLean’s innovation and persistence, his method of placing cargo in containers for shipping on specially designed ships, costs were reduced to 16 cents a ton, as compared to the usual rate of five dollars a ton. At his headquarters in Mobile, Alabama, McLean redesigned six larger ships to carry 256 containers each. Keith Tantlinger, McLean’s chief engineer, redesigned truck chassis to carry containers along with “twist locks” used to secure the containers once they were stacked on the ships. Both Tantlinger and McLean worked constantly to develop new ways to make loading and unloading containers more efficient. McLean invested heavily in container shipping, and by 1965, his company, Sea-Land, owned 15 ships and 13,553 containers. Eventually, unions accepted the fact that port labor no longer consisted of large crews of longshoremen. Over time, the size of container boxes was standardized to 20- and 40- foot lengths, which greatly improved efficiency.

Early on during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon was experiencing problems moving supplies in a timely manner to the Far East. In 1967, McLean built a port at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and began shipping 600 containers loaded with supplies every two weeks, alleviating the Pentagon’s logistical problems. Empty containers were sailed back home by way of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China, facilitating an export boon that transformed their economies and provided cheaper goods for Americans.

In 1970, McLean sold Sea-Land to R. J. Reynolds, and left the container shipping business altogether. Following a few financial setbacks, McLean re-entered the container shipping business by buying the United States Lines in 1977. Container shipping by then was growing by 20 percent per year and becoming more competitive. Ships were now larger and faster and many flew foreign flags. By 1986, overextended in a highly competitive market, McLean filed for bankruptcy, declaring an indebtedness of $1.2 billion. He died in 2001 at the age of 87 years. On the day of the funeral of Malcom Purcell McLean, container ships all over the globe sounded their whistles to salute his innovative contribution to the container shipping industry.

Read the full January edition of the Gadsden GAB by clicking here!

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