It was 50 years ago that Malcom McLean
, an entrepreneur from North Carolina, loaded a ship with 58 35-foot containers and sailed from Newark, N.J., to Houston. He was the first to design a transportation system around the packaging of cargo in huge metal boxes that could be loaded and unloaded by cranes. Container shipping eventually replaced the traditional "break-bulk" method of handling crates, barrels and bags, and stowing them loose in a ship's hold, a system in use since the days of the Phoenicians. Replacing break-bulk with cargo containers dramatically reduced shipping costs, reinvigorating markets and fueling the world economy. McLean, who died in 2001 at 87, shares the credit with Matson Navigation Co.
of San Francisco, a longtime force in Pacific shipping. Two years after McLean loaded his ship, the Ideal-X, Matson's Hawaiian Merchant inaugurated container shipping in the Pacific, carrying 20 24-foot-long cargo holders from Alameda, Calif., to Honolulu. In 1959, according to Matson research, the industry was loading and unloading 0.627 tons per man hour. By 1976, with container shipping well established, the figure was 4,234 tons per man hour. A ship's time in port shrank from three weeks to 18 hours. In 1950, an average commercial vessel could carry 10,000 tons at a speed of 16 knots. With container shipping, the average commercial vessel carried 40,000 tons at a speed of 23 knots. The numbers are even larger today. A vessel capable of carrying 6,600 20-foot containers can carry 77,000 tons at up to 24.8 knots. With world trade booming, cargo from Asia is expected to double at the major West Coast ports by 2020, according to the Pacific Maritime Association.