Everything is everywhere these days.
Check out the supermarket — orange juice from China, nuts from India,
swordfish from Japan, lagers from Czechoslovakia,
scores of European cheeses.
You name it, it’s there. Not when I was growing up.
You’d never taste a range of French cheeses
or Bohemian lager beer.
At least, you couldn’t unless you were very rich
and could go anywhere when the fancy took you. All that has changed.
But it’s not just foods. Got an iPhone?
Everyone knows it was invented and designed at Cupertino
in California, but who knows where
the complex bits and pieces of its innards are made or assembled?
Apple doesn’t say.
The industry credits China, Japan, Germany, South Korea
and, of course, the United States itself.
Just think for a moment of the trillions of parts
and finished goods moving cheaply around the world
every second, a small portion by air,
but most by sea.
We call it globalization,
but the man who basically made globalization a reality in our lives
is too little known. This is his story.
The story of the man who makes your day.
In the Great Depression of the ’30s,
when millions of Americans were out of work, worse than now,
Malcolm McLean was a 24-year-old truck driver.
He got a job to take cotton bales
from Fayetteville in North Carolina all the way
to a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey for shipping overseas.
He was glad of the work, but when he arrived
he got bored out of his mind, sitting in his truck
waiting and waiting and waiting on the docks
as the worker ants muscled crates and bundles off other trucks
and into slings that lifted the goods into the hold of the ship.
On board the ship itself,
with much yelling and arm waving,
the stevedores then unloaded each sling
and saw its contents placed in a designated position
in the hold.
Malcolm wasn’t just bored, he was fuming.
His income depended on getting back to North Carolina
to pick up more loads in his truck.
Out of the frustration, inspiration struck.
Wouldn’t it be great, he thought,
if my trailer could be lifted
and placed on the ship
without its cotton bales being touched. Yes, it would be great.
It would be revolutionary. For centuries,
general non-bulk cargo had been shipped in the process he watched.
It was called break bulk shipping.
Boxes, bales, crates handled piece by piece.
What Malcolm envisaged would have saved him only a day,
but it would have saved everyone else
something like two weeks in loading and unloading the ship.
On average, it was eight days
to haul and distribute break bulk shipments in the hold,
plus another eight days at the other end
to retrieve and distribute.
All that time would have been saved
if Malcolm McLean could have just driven his truck onto the ship
and at the other end, driven it off.
Well, today that concept is a reality.
The concept that occurred to Malcolm
is known as containerization.
It has done more than just save a great deal of time.
It’s the reason why we have a thriving global marketplace,
offering us that infinite variety of things,
and it’s the reason we can move cargo
from remote parts of the world at minimal cost.
Malcolm had his idea in 1937.
The 24-year-old truck driver sitting in his truck in Hoboken
was 40 before he did anything about it.
By then, he’d built his one truck
into a big trucking company. He borrowed money
from an enterprising vice president at Citibank in New York,
and set about designing the steel boxes and the decks of the ships
to carry them stacked one on top of another.
A lot of people thought he was crazy.
Inventors always attract armies of naysayers
who can never remember how critical they were.
For our part, we should remember Malcolm McLean.
His first container ship, the Ideal X,
sailed from Shed 154
at Marsh Street, Port Newark
with 58 well-filled boxes.
It was the beginning of the container era,
shrinking our world
and enlarging human choice.