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June 4 & 11, 2001
Containerized Shipping:
Thinking Inside the Box
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See the new version of this tidbit - with updated links - April 2004.

Container ship

A technology does not need to be complex to be revolutionary.  Every so often a relatively simple idea comes along that revolutionizes an industry and, in the process, has profound effects on commerce, society, and the global economy.  Containerized shipping is one such technology.  The importance of this technology was brought to mind last month (May 2001) with the death of Malcolm McLean at the age of 87. 

In the mid-1950s, McLean, who began as a truck driver in North Carolina and built a huge trucking company, came up with the notion of taking the body from a tractor-trailer and placing it fully-loaded on a ship, a railroad car, or even an airplane.  Ocean shipping in this manner saves the tedious, expensive, and time-consuming  job of unloading cargo from a truck or a railroad car, loading it into the hull of a ship and reversing the process at the ship's destination.  A standard container can carry up to 20 tons (U.S.) fully loaded.  It can keep shipments together, protect them from the elements, from damage in handling, and from theft.  An estimated 90 percent of the world's trade today moves in containers.  One hundred million container loads crisscross the world's oceans each year in over 5,000 container ships.  According to one of the web sites listed below, there are enough containers in the world today to build an 8 foot high wall twice around the Equator.

Not everyone welcomed the container revolution.  Port operators resisted investing in the expensive new equipment needed to hoist containers on and off ships while longshoremen who handled the cargo fought to keep their jobs which were threatened by the new technology.  But the advantages of containerization were too powerful to resist.  And the effects go far beyond the ports.  In fact, many observers attribute the rise of trade between the U.S. and Asia to the reductions in cost and shipping time that containerization made possible.  As an example, standard shipments from Hong Kong to New York, which took approximately 50 days in 1970, today take only 17 days.  Malcolm McLean, while hardly a household name, is recognized as one of the most important innovators of the past 50 years. 

= highly recommended

"The Evolution of the Revolution in Containers," a history of containerized shipping from Maersk SeaLand, a shipping company.  The firm's main page is also worth a visit. "A regularly researched free service, dedicated to container shipping, providing
links to sources of news, market reports, statistics, analysis, directories, guides and more."  If you are in the container shipping business or are looking for a container shipper, this is the place.

A container shipping slide show, with narration and background sound in RealAudio.

Obituary for Malcolm McLean, "father of containerization," from The Washington Post, May 27, 2001.

Malcolm McLean obit in Real Audio on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, May 29, 2001. "Noah Adams talks with Paul Richardson, former president of SeaLand Inc., about Malcolm McLean, who revolutionized the shipping industry with his idea for using containers to store goods on ships."

Promoting creativity, using Malcolm McLean's invention of containerized shipping as an example.  From the web site of Philip Adam & Associates, a Milwaukee based management consulting firm.

OceanVoice Magazine.  "The world's leading magazine for maritime e-commerce, the internet, communications, software and electronics." Published in the United Kingdom.

Containerisation, from the Choice Group, a worldwide firm headquartered in Cochin, India.

"Container shipping boom over: Report," by Bruce Barnard, in The Journal of Commerce Online (April 24, 2001).  "The $90 billion-a-year container shipping industry faces falling freight rates, a slowdown in traffic growth and further consolidation in the coming months, according to Drewry Shipping Consultants."  The JofC also contains a great deal more news and information on the shipping industry.

"Fighting the Tide," description of a one-hour documentary on containerized shipping that aired on PBS, the U.S. public broadcasting television network, in September 2000.

Site on containerized shipping and associated communications, freight handling, and port technologies.  Part of a student project on "Modern Harbor Technologies and their Influences on Surrounding Urban Environments" by Christopher Janson at Iowa State University, December 1999. 

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