In the 1930’s a young trucker named Malcolm McLean had to wait hours for his truck to be unloaded, then reloaded by hand to a cargo ship. He was tired from driving all night and wanted to get home to his family for Thanksgiving. There were already 20 trucks ahead of him waiting to be unloaded. In the 1930’s, it could take hundreds of dock workers up to a week to load one ship. Every item had to be loaded individually, which meant that they first had to be unloaded from the trucks, then loaded onto a sling, and then carefully placed aboard. It was a painful, dangerous and time consuming process.
McLean sat in his truck, waiting for his turn, frustrated with the 9 hour delay until he could unload. That was when he came up with the idea that it would be faster and easier if they could unload his truck bed as one piece, and quickly stack it on the ship. When he discussed this idea with others, they thought it sounded ridiculous. The thinking of the day was that, to increase production, you had to improve the layout of the cargo to maximize the use of the space in the ship, while increasing the speed of the ships. McLean’s idea was to build faster docks, not faster ships.
In the 1950’s McLean sold his trucking company and bought a commercial steamship company. He purchased two World War II T-2 tankers and modified them so that he could carry truck containers on board. It took a while for the ships to be remodeled and the truck containers constructed to fit the vessel’s decks. He also had to come up with a new design for loading cranes and a locking system for the containers.
In 1956 when McLean was designing the shipping containers, most cargo was still loaded and unloaded by hand by longshoremen at a cost $5.86 a ton. McLean’s containerized system, when completed, only cost $.16 a ton to load, a massive savings and improvement in efficiency. Whereas it had taken a week to load a ship, it now only required 8 hours of loading time.
McLean transformed the shipping industry and the future of how the global economy functions, with his simple but brilliant idea. McLean also focused on standardization which increased the efficiency of the shipping industry as a whole. Today, the former shipping company McLean formed, Sea-Land, operates as Horizon Lines, which accounts for approximately 36% of the total U.S. marine container shipments.
McLean’s unconventional thinking led to one of the world’s most innovative inventions of all time. As with so many other inventions, looking at a problem from a new perspective and thinking of ways to solve that problem can shift your thinking and help you come up with new, creative ideas.
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