Sep

12

 I went to a lecture on the hidden waterfront of New York, where containers, boats, and docks handle the biggest port in world. There was a good example of productivity started by Mclean, a trucker waiting for delivery of goods on a boat. He figured it might be good to provide a standardized flat size container that could be loaded on and off by cranes. The results. In 1965 there were 15,000 long shoreman handling, let's say, 50 million tons of freight. Now there are 1,200 comparable long shoreman handling 750 million tons of freight. (the ratios are right, but I have to check the base). As an aside, the waterfront is a very highly paid profession with about 500,000 workers there now making an average of 150,000 a year. A long shoreman makes 150,000 and a pilot 300,000. A great job for a nautically minded kid. 

Stefan Jovanovich comments: 

McLean put the idea of cargo containers and container ships into practice when he got out of the trucking business and bought the Pan Atlantic Steamship Company which became Sea-Land. For whatever reason Willie McCovey and Henry Aaron's birthplace has been for the 20th century what Boston was for the 19th - the place where American maritime innovation flourished. By the time McLean sold Sea-Land to R. J. Reynolds in 1969 it was the largest container carrier in the world.

Why RJR? Because McLean trucking had gotten its start hauling empty tobacco barrels. The McLean Brothers were from Maxton, NC; and they were, like almost everyone in the Depression, broke but they were not "poor" and certainly not without connections. Angus Wilton McLean had been Governor from 1925 to 1929 and an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the last year of the Wilson administration.

McLean was an inveterate innovator. McLean Trucking were among the first companies to switch their rigs from gasoline to diesel. Later on [in the mid 1970s] when McLean decided to get back into the container ship business by buying U.S. Lines, he decided that shipping's status quo needed to be challenged just as Brunel had done 120 years earlier. Like Brunel McLean bet that the demand for cargo would rise fast enough to justify really large vessels. When it was launched in 1858, the Great Eastern had a capacity of 19,000 tons, easily more than twice the size of current ships (it would be another 40 years for that size vessel to be regularly constructed). When McLean ordered his 4300 TEU ships from Daewoo in 1878, the largest existing container ships had only 3,000 TEU capacity.

Both ventures were failures — but not because of the increased size. What killed Brunel's great ship and McLean's Econships was that they were both designed to run more efficiently at slow speeds. The market demanded faster transit times than their vessels could economically deliver.

When he died in 2001, McLean was developing another innovation - roll on roll off large capacity van transport. That company - Trailer Bridge - is still at it.

Alex Castaldo adds:

Just to put these numbers in perspective, the biggest container-carrying ship today is 18,000 TEU.


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  1. Craig Bowles on September 14, 2013 8:41 pm

    It wasn’t just unions and costs that destroyed NYC as a port city, many of the guys that worked on the docks took a lot of liberties. They would throw stuff off the rail cars and pick it up later. The stealing became just too much. That’s the view of the guys that grew up around the docks in Brooklyn.

    One of my childhood friends worked for Malcolm McLean after college. They were very excited about container shipping. My buddy had all his savings in their stock when bankruptcy was filed.

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