Consider the Humble Shipping Container

Malcolm McLean may be the most important person you’ve never heard of. His claim to fame? Inventing a box.

But not just any box. McLean—a high school-educated truck driver from North Carolina—came up with the idea of creating a series of standardized, intermodal steel containers that could neatly be stacked on ships as well as trains and trucks.

That was in 1937. It would be another two decades before the first container ship voyage occurred, from Newark to Houston. Ten years after that, in 1966, container shipping expanded to international routes.

Everything changed, though, with the Vietnam War, which created the sudden need for mass volumes of supplies to be transported quickly and efficiently. The shipping container’s time had come. By the end of the 1960s, McLean sold his empire for a profit of $160 million.

According to one estimate, McLean’s invention reduced the cost of shipping by 25%. I would argue the savings are many times greater than that, perhaps incalculably so.

Just consider labor alone. Before containerization, goods had to be loaded and reloaded by hand at every stop along the supply chain—from ship to port, from port to train, from train to truck. Today, much of this work is seamless and automated.

Below is an excerpt from economist Marc Levinson’s essential history on the container and its impact on our lives, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger:

“An enormous containership can be loaded with a minute fraction of the labor and time required to handle a small conventional ship half a century ago. A few crew members can manage an oceangoing vessel longer than four football fields. A trucker can deposit a trailer at a customer’s loading dock, hook up another trailer, and drive on immediately, rather than watch his expensive rig stand idle while the contents are removed. All of those changes are consequences of the container revolution.”