It's more than a little bit ironic. But as the controversy rages about Dubai Ports World's ill-fated attempt to take over some operations at six U.S. ports, an important anniversary has nearly slipped by unnoticed. April marks the anniversary of the invention of the ocean container, which was introduced 50 years ago this month—and without which the whole Dubai debate would never have arisen. (The hue and cry over the Dubai Ports World proposal seems doubly ironic when you consider that a much larger security risk— our failure to inspect the majority of incoming ocean containers—has gone virtually unmentioned.)
As the debate rages, you have to wonder what Malcom P. McLean would have thought of it all. Malcom who? That's Malcom P. McLean, the former truck driver who came up with the idea for the modern ocean container: a van without wheels that could be loaded onto trucks, railcars or ships. Fifty years ago this month—on April 27, 1956, to be precise— McLean orchestrated the now historic inaugural ocean voyage of IDEAL X, the first vessel carrying containerized cargo, between the ports of New York/New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Today, he's known as the father of containerization, a development that revolutionized global trade and in the process, the world of logistics and supply chain management.
To mark this event, the History of Containerization (HOC) Foundation in conjunction with the Containerization & Intermodal Institute (CII) will host a gala celebration at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The event is scheduled for April 27—50 years to the day after that history-making voyage.
If you haven't heard of the HOC Foundation, that's because it's new. CII and other industry leaders established the foundation just this year. The non-profit charitable organization's mission is to document the evolution of the seagoing shipping container and the industry it created, and to recognize the many individuals worldwide who played a role in containerization's development.
The HOC Foundation also intends to create a permanent exhibit for viewing by future generations. The goal is to show how one simple idea, containerization, revolutionized ocean shipping and sparked an explosion in global trade. In addition, the CII and HOC Foundation plan to publish a book on the first 50 years of containerization.
"We want to ensure that the role of containerization in revolutionizing global trade is recognized rightly as one of the most significant commercial events in world history," says Michael B. Berzon, chairman of the HOC Foundation. "The roots of the container revolution grew from one simple idea acted on 50 years ago by a humble truck driver from North Carolina— Malcom McLean. Today's world economy and our modern retail society would not exist without the container industry's incredible advancement over the past half-century."
The idea seems to be taking hold. "Many of the leading companies in containerization and intermodalism have stepped up to support this mission and we are already nearing a sell-out event in Washington," reports Barbara Spector Yeninas, who has been named executive director of the HOC Foundation.
And for that, we should all be grateful to the CII and the HOC Foundation. Their efforts will help assure that a fleeting controversy doesn't eclipse an important anniversary or the larger-than-life character behind it. Who would have thought that nearly five years after his passing, we'd still find Malcom right in the middle of it all?