Malcolm P. McLean, 87, a former North Carolina truck driver whose deceptively simple idea transformed the world's commerce and economy, died of pneumonia May 25 at his home in New York. He had a heart ailment.
He began his transportation career hauling empty tobacco barrels in a clunker of a truck, and proceeded to build that business into the giant McLean Trucking. But while still driving, he was struck by the enormous inefficiency of ports, where huge workforces were needed to transfer goods among trucks and trains and ships.
Mr. McLean became "the father of containerization" when he acted on his idea of lifting the container portion of a truck into the hold of a ship, onto the flatbed of a train or even into cargo airplanes. "Break-bulk shipping," as the traditional method of freight transfer was known, had not really changed in theory from almost prehistoric times, and many thought there was no reason to change it at all.
Mr. McLean had to fight port officials who did not want to purchase the expensive equipment needed to handle the truck bodies. He had to persuade other shippers that containerization was not only immensely cheaper but the undoubted wave of the future. More resistance came from the maritime unions, which rightly saw that the new system would require much less labor.
But Mr. McLean's theories of "intermodalism" -- transfering massive cargo boxes among ships, trains and trucks -- triumphed. It was undoubtedly cheaper and faster, and it also proved safer for everyone handling cargo.
Today, it is estimated that 90 percent of the world's trade moves in the containers. Some 100 million container loads a year sail the world's waters in some 5,000 ships designed to carry the massive cargo boxes. Transportation historians have compared the historic sea change to the transition from sail to steam or from hulls of oak to modern steel.
Mr. McLean put his money where his dreams were in the 1950s when he sold his interest in McLean Trucking to enter the sea-going shipping trade. His first ship, the Ideal X, led the way with its revolutionary load of new cargo containers. On April 26, 1956, in the words of Washington Post transportation reporter Don Phillips, "an old bucket of bolts called the Ideal X set sail from Port Elizabeth, N.J., to Houston and began a transportation revolution that transformed the world's economy."
The revolution took time. Some port authorities dragged their feet in buying the equipment needed to deal with the cargo. In other ports, longshoremen waged bitter struggles against the concept. In some ports the cargo containers were unloaded on ship, the cargo carried to trucks, where it was reloaded into the cargo container.
But the ports that adopted the new concept began to prosper, and the old ports fell behind. The tenacity of people like Mr. McLean, along with shipping and airline deregulation and the benefits of containerization, assured the new system's triumph.
Containerization opened new markets, making it possible for goods from far-off Asia to become a big factor in American and European industry. In 1970, it took 50 days to ship cargo from Hong Kong to New York. Thirty years later, with the triumph of intermodalism, it took only 17 days.
In remarks addressed to Mr. McLean commemorating the 40th anniversary of the sailing of his "bucket of bolts," President Bill Clinton said: "Four decades ago, when the Ideal X sailed with the first shipment of containerized cargo, few could have foreseen the global impact of your innovative idea. Containerization has created international trading relationships that have fueled the world's economy and helped it to keep its peace."
Mr. McLean, who also had received honors from President Ronald Reagan, was named the International Maritime Hall of Fame's "Man of the Century." In 1995, American Heritage magazine named him one of the 10 outstanding innovators since 1945, and Fortune magazine named him to its hall of fame in 1982.
After starting McLean Trucking during the Great Depression, he and two siblings built it into the nation's second-largest trucking concern. After divesting himself of his share in the trucking company, he purchased the Pan Atlantic Steamship Co. and its parent Waterman Steamship Co. in the mid-1950s. Later, Waterman became Sea-Land Service and began pioneering container routes.
His concept dramatically proved its worth when his ships transported logistics to new dock facilities in Vietnam during the war. After this, an increasing number of critics and competitors adopted containerization.
Sea-Land became the world's biggest container carrier before he sold the company in 1969. Mr. McLean re-entered the shipping business in 1978 when he purchased the small U.S. Lines, a company he built to the size of Sea-Land before it eventually went bankrupt. In 1992, he became head of Trailer Bridge, a company involved shipping goods between Puerto Rico and the mainland United States.
Mr. McLean's first wife, Margaret, died in 1992. Survivors include his wife, Irena, of homes in New York, Connecticut and North Carolina; three children from his first marriage; a brother; three sisters; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.