2013: The Centenary of Malcolm McLean


2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm Purcell McLean, an entrepreneur from North Carolina who came up with an idea that completely transformed the world.

In 1937 McLean was in Hoboken, New Jersey, to drop off a load of wool bales from his truck. Having waited most of the day to unload, he had watched the stevedores putting bales into slings then hoisting them one-by-one onto the ships. He concluded that a lot of time and money was being wasted in the current process. His sudden epiphany was that it would be much simpler to take off the rear of his truck and put that on the ship.

He subsequently founded Sea-Land, a company that became the world’s first container shipping line. Employing this new concept, ships could be loaded and unloaded within hours rather than days or weeks. A future concept was to drop off empty containers in countries such as Japan, where they could be filled with exportable items for distribution to wholesale and retail markets around the world.

In 2013, we have seen the advent of ships — 20 of them — commissioned by Denmark’s Maersk Line that are capable of carrying 18,000 containers each, doubling the capacities of the largest ships active only a decade before. McLean could not have foreseen the scope that his idea would acquire, but its influence has truly laid the pattern for all commerce and supply chain ideas that have followed since.

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