Today’s global economy
depends on the cheap movement of goods around the planet. And that is made possible by the
container and the container ship. The container is to the
late 20th and 21st Century what the railroad is
to the 19th Century. It enabled the movement
of goods on a scale that had never before been imagined. And it began with the
imagination and frustration of one truck driver
named Malcolm McClean. In the late 1930s, Malcolm
McClean was a truck driver who drove cotton bales
from the south to the north to be deposited on a ship in
New York City to go to Istanbul. Now when he got there, he did what most
people did when they got to a port. They waited, and they waited and waited. And he thought to himself
and frustration, why don’t I just drive my truck onto the
ship and be done with it. Now in the ’30s that
wasn’t possible, and so he did what any well intentioned
responsible truck driver would do. He bribed the foreman to make sure that
his stuff was the next stuff loaded on the ship, and he could go. But the thought nagged at him and
nagged at him for many decades. 20 years later, Malcolm McClean
owned his own trucking company. It had 2,000 trucks. His was a wild success story. But he knew that there was
something more that could be done. And so in 1956, he sells his entire
company because he wants to own a ship. And laws at that time prevented
people from owning two different modes of transportation, again, the
antitrust laws the mid 20th Century. He buys a ship, a converted ship from
World War II, called the Ideal-X. And it launches from Baltimore in
1956, the very first container ship. The container ship was
a radical invention because it got rid of
all the people who would be needed to carry
goods on and off a ship. Before the container ship,
there weren’t cranes. There were just big nets. And so individual men would carry
barrels, sacks, boxes on and off of ships. But with a container, it
could all be moved at once. To give you a sense of how
transformative this was, even in 1956, it was the equivalent of reducing
half of the cost of shipping from something from America to Europe. An average ship before the container
would take 150 longshoreman four days to load and unload. With the container, the same
ship could be loaded and unloaded with 14 people in just eight hours. This was to transportation what the
assembly line was to the factory. Despite this efficiency, it only has
value if there was not just a container at one end of the shipping
but also at the other end. But how would you get
someone on the other side the planet to invest in these
expensive cranes and machines. And the answer comes, again,
through state intervention, in this case, the Vietnam War. What made this simultaneous investment
possible was the Vietnam War. There was only one major deep
water port in Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay, that was controlled
by the US military. And that port was backed up,
even worse the New York City. And so being able to unload
ships quickly mattered a lot. Also with the container, it would
be possible to have greater security over the guns and ammunition
coming into Vietnam off the ships. And so Robert McNamara,
the former head of Ford who had become Secretary
of Defense under Kennedy, believes in this idea of the container
ship brought to him by McClean. He believes that McClean’s
company, now called SeaLand, could provide all the logistical needs
to bring goods from America to Vietnam to supply the war needs. The container shipments begin in 1967. And immediately, the
costs are about half of what it costs the Navy, even if
the Navy had used its own ships. So it’s a stunning
increase in efficiency. And what’s interesting
is that this quickly becomes normal through the entire
American economy for shipping goods because of all
those defense contracts. So that if you supplied to
the US government, suddenly you had to supply your goods in
a container from the factory. So that it ripples backwards
from the ports to the factories, remaking the way goods
are sold in America, shipped in America, and, again, from
this intervention by the US government. Though McClean is making
money, he realizes that every box he ships over
filled with goods returns empty. And he also realizes
that between Vietnam and the United States is a large
growing industrial economy. That is Japan. And so in 1968, he begins to create
a containerized port in Japan. And it allows goods of Japan to be
shipped very securely, very cheaply to the United States. This is especially important for the
rising Japanese consumer electronics market which needs to have
secured high value goods being moved from Japan to the United States. And while this containerization begins
with high value goods, whether guns or consumer electronics, it
then enables the expansion into cheaper and cheaper goods like
textiles and other kinds of goods. Until today, the entire global economy
is moved around by these containers.

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