Malcom McLean – The Father of Shipping Containers

Who is the father of shipping containers?

The name Malcom McLean may not mean anything when you hear it, but you know of his legacy, especially if you use shipping containers as part of your business or home projects.

Shipping containers changed the way we deliver and receive goods. And it’s thanks to one man.

Malcom McLean

But who was Malcom McLean? And what exactly did he do?

In this article, we’ll learn who Malcom McLean was and why he’s considered to be the father of shipping containers.

Who was Malcom McLean?


Malcom McLean was born in the city of Maxton, North Carolina in 1913.

Not having enough money to attend college, McLean and his siblings ended up founding the McLean Trucking Company.

McLean worked as one of the drivers, hauling empty tobacco barrels from Red Springs, NC.

At some point, McLean changed the spelling of his name from ‘Malcolm’ to ‘Malcom’, but there is no stated reason for this decision.

The Birth of Shipping Containers


Before shipping containers, goods were loaded onto cargo ships and would take nearly a week to load and unload cargo.

The goods would then be stored at a warehouse on the port while waiting for another boat to arrive.

This process was known as bulk cargo and ships would typically carry 200,000 pieces of cargo.

Because of the bulk cargo, loading and unloading was a very labor-intensive process and highlighted a lack of standardization in the shipping process.

During a transport trip, McLean witnessed this process and was annoyed by it, believing it to be a waste of both time and money.

It was at this time that McLean began to think of a more efficient way to transport cargo.

After selling his trucking business, McLean began the process of trying to use containers commercially.

How Containers Got Their Shape


McLean’s first forays into transport shipping began with using his own trucking company trucks on ships that would be moving along the Atlantic coast.

However, this become inefficient because of the wasted space on ships. McLean then began to redesign his idea, coming up with the design that we know as the shipping container.

The new design also meant new shipping designs, so McLean converted two World War II tankers into container ships, launching the first one – SS Ideal-X – in April 1956.

Here’s a great video by the New York Times that discusses how McLean got started:


Shipping Containers and Globalization


Containers were easier to load and unload from ships and was a fraction of the cost to do so.

A year later, in 1957, the very first container ship called the Gateway City, began carrying cargo between New York, Florida, and Texas.

McLean’s company Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation soon changed the name to Sea-Land Service, Inc, a name that continues in shipping today.

Throughout the 60s, McLean continued to add routes and opened new port facilities. New shipping services could now transport to Puerto Rico and parts of Scotland.

It was this time that the US Government approached McLean about using the container service for transport to South Vietnam during the Korean War.

This opened up routes to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines by the early 1970s.

Seeing the rise in popularity, McLean made the decision to share his patents with the International Organization for Standardization.

Shipping Containers Today


Today shipping containers help ship nearly 90% of goods from country to country.

Containers on a ship

But containers have evolved past that.

Now shipping containers are being used in a variety of different ways – from housing to schools to offices and even hospitals.

CURA ICU shipping container hospital room

Shipping containers continue to be a versatile product, created by one man in order to provide more efficiency in the transporting process.

Malcom McLean began something in response to what he saw as a slow procedure and it ended up becoming so much more.

If you’re interested in using shipping containers for your storage needs, give us a call at 800.686.9114. Our container storage experts are ready to help you choose the right one for your needs