April 26th 1956: The Container Ship’s Maiden Voyage

The converted tanker Ideal X left New Jersey on April 26th 1956 carrying 58 cargo-laden truck-trailers on its specially fitted deck. Containerization is born. Globalization had set sail.

The Ideal X - The World's First Container Ship

The first container ship was the brainchild of North Carolina businessman Malcolm McLean, who bought a second-hand truck in 1934 and built it into a fleet of nearly 1,800 trucks, the largest in the South and the fifth-largest in the nation. As early as 1937, he’d noted the wasted time of break-bulk cargo handling, with longshoremen or stevedores laboriously loading individual items like sacks of coffee or nets full of cotton bales.

He thought it would make much more sense to lift whole truck trailers on and off the ship. And he wanted to save taxes as well as time. Sending truck trailers by ship from one domestic port to another would avoid the state fees imposed for excess weight as a truck passed through a dozen or more states.

The Seatrain shipping line had carried railroad box cars on deck as early as 1929 on the New York–to–Cuba run. But McLean envisioned ships dedicated entirely to the new loading system. He wanted to separate the truck container from its bed and wheels, and he conceived an angled-corner-post system to allow easy stacking and hold the containers in place.

So, he sold his trucking business and bought Pan-Atlantic Tanker Co. renaming it Sea-Land Shipping and beta-tested his idea with the Ideal X. McLean’s gamble was closely watched, and by the time the ship arrived in Houston five days later, there was already space booked on it to ship containers north.

The cost savings began immediately, and they increased despite increased costs as ports needed to retool and install new, jumbo cranes, but more and more began to do so as they saw other containerized ports increase traffic. The shipping container was born. Ships were built to contain nothing but containers, above deck and below.

Containers were soon standardized to make the system global at 8 feet wide, either 20 or 40 feet long, with heights of 8, 8½ or 9½ feet. Today, approximately 90% of global cargo is now carried by container, with motor vehicles being the biggest exception, and the average cost of shipping a product overseas has fallen from 15% of retail to less than 1%.

Could Mclean have imagined that from inception to today, 56 years later, there would be more than 530 million containers in the world!!

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