First Containership, Ideal-X, 1956

Containers Being Loaded on the First Containership, Ideal-X, 1956

Source: Maersk/SeaLand.

On April 26th, 1956, the Ideal-X left the Port of Newark, New Jersey, to the Port Houston, Texas, which was called five days later. It carried 58 35-feet (8 feet wide by 8 feet high) containers, along with a regular load of 15,000 tons of bulk petroleum. The containers were loaded in less than eight hours. The 35 feet unit represented the standard truck size in the United States at that time, particularly because there were very few highways and that turn radius on standard roads did not allow for long trailers.

This first containership was converted T2 oil tanker under the initiative of Malcolm McLean (1914-2001), a trucking magnate who saw the tremendous potential of containerization, particularly in terms of loading and unloading costs. In 1937, while delivering cotton bales from North Carolina (Lafayette) to New York Harbor, McLean was forced to wait several days while longshoremen manually loaded the cargo. The time and cost intensiveness of standard break bulk cargo operations was an important impediment to trade and shipping. McLean calculated that in 1956 loading a medium-sized ship the conventional way was costing $5.83 a ton. Comparatively, loading containers (using the Ideal-X as a frame of reference) would cost less than $0.16 a ton. The economic advantages of such a mode of transportation became clear to the shipping industry.

The initial goal of McLean was to create an integrated transport system in the United States where coastal shipping would complement road and rail transportation. This goal was difficult to achieve because of the segmented nature of the industry. Further, the development of the Interstate Highway System in the United States during the 1960s improved trucking efficiency considerably. Further, McLean initially proposed that an entire truck trailer to be handled as a unit (like the trailer on flatcar handled by rail), which turned out to be impractical.

In 1960, McLean founded SeaLand, a major container shipping line, which was purchased in 1999 by Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company. The Ideal X carried containers until 1964 when it was scrapped.