Port Newark and the origins of the container

“An inventor is just a guy who doesn’t take his education too seriously.” –Charles Kettering

Just for fun, try asking a friend a few questions. Who developed the phone? Chances are your friend will answer, Alexander Graham Bell. Who developed the light bulb? That would be Thomas Edison. Who developed the telegraph? That would be Samuel FB Morse. Now ask, who developed containerization? Unless your friend has a background in maritime history, he’s likely to blank out.

The answer is a man named Malcom McLean. But who was he exactly? Was he a maritime executive? Maybe he was a professor of packaging engineering? No, he was just a truck driver. What? How is it possible? Sometimes the best solution to a problem eludes the overeducated. It makes for an interesting story.

It’s a story I tried to tell the best I could in my book, Port Newark and the Origins of Container Shipping, which will be released next month. As readers of this journal are well aware, container shipping is a vital part of the global economy. Goods from around the world, from vegetables to automobiles, are placed in large metal containers that are transported across the ocean in ships and then loaded onto tractor-trailers and railroad flatbeds. But when and where did this revolutionary invention begin?

My book traces the birth of containerization in Port Newark, New Jersey, when trucker Malcom McLean thought of a brilliant new way to transport goods. As a truck driver years earlier, McLean had often been frustrated by standing in line for hours to have his truck unloaded by stevedores, case by case and barrel by barrel, onto the ship at the dock. He hated waiting. He just wanted to go home. His original idea was just to put the whole truck on the boat. Of course, that was not possible. Over time, he refined the idea and he found the capital to implement his plan. He consulted competent engineers who figured out how to make it work.

It all started in Port Newark on April 26, 1956, almost seventy years ago. It was a cool day, with a high temperature of 48 degrees, with intermittent showers. On a dock outside Hangar 154, some fifty-eight 33-foot-long containers were dumped aboard the SS Ideal X, a converted World War II tanker, a 524-foot-long ship, with l former name of Potero Hills. Previously, tankers carried a profitable load of oil from Houston to Newark, but returned with only ballast. Now, tons of goods could be carried on the journey south, making both legs of the journey worthwhile. A huge crane placed the containers (they were aptly called “trailers” at the time) on a metal platform of the tanker, above the pumping machinery.

The average loading time was seven minutes per container. The whole ship was loaded in less than eight hours. Under normal circumstances, the cargo on the ship would have gone to Houston on highway trucks – a journey of about six days. It would take the ship the same time, but there would be a saving of about thirty percent. It was a breakthrough, the brainchild of one man, Malcom McLean.

I go on to tell the story of Port Newark’s rapid growth as McLean’s idea was backed by both New York banks and the US military, which used containerization to ship supplies to troops in Vietnam. . I take the reader behind the scenes of today’s active container shipping operations in Port Newark, talking to the pilots who guide ships through the port, Coast Guard personnel who help manage the massive shipping traffic , to the crews who unload the containers and even to the chaplains who advise and support the seafarers. Port Newark shines a light on the unsung men and women who help make this complex global maritime operation run smoothly.

Since McLean’s innovation, Port Newark has grown with the addition of the nearby Elizabeth Marine Terminal. This New Jersey resort is now the busiest seaport on the East Coast of the United States. Some have even called it “America’s Gateway”. My book tells the story of the rapid growth of global containerization and how Port Newark adapted to larger ships with deeper channels and an elevated deck. In the end, there is speculation about the future of this port with ever-increasing automation, artificial intelligence and automation.


About the Author: Angus Kress Gillespie teaches American Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he has taught maritime history. A Fulbright professor and New York Times bestselling author, he has written on topics ranging from skyscrapers to freeways. He is the author of Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center and co-author of Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, both published by Rutgers University Press.

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