Of Boats and Boxes

shipping containersFifty years ago…

On April 26, 1956, the freighter Ideal X left port on its maiden voyage. Following the coast from Newark to Houston, the converted WWII tanker didn’t have far to go or much to transport. Yet, its historic cargo would revolutionize the way people around the world eat, dress, live, play and work: On board were 58 of Malcom P. McLean’s standardized shipping containers.

McLean’s simple invention transformed international commerce. These days, containers move quickly from truck to train to ship and then back again. Peek inside and you’ll see tomatoes or teddy bears, T-shirts or Toyotas. (Or, in the ugly shadows of globalization, women and children.)

ISO standards fixed containers decades ago to specific sizes, and most now fall into the 20 or 40 ft categories. Not surprisingly, the US has been pushing for ever bigger boxes, even though Europe and Asia’s smaller trucks and roads won’t easily accommodate super-sized containers.

McLean died five years ago at the age of 87, a successful inventor and businessman who lived to see his work touch every industry and reach every corner of the globe.

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

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