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We started where most histories of containerization start—with Malcom McLean, the North Carolina trucking magnate, who speculated that he could load lots of his trailers onto a ship and send them by sea for less than the cost of trucking them overland. McLean is credited with shipping the first load of containers (truck trailers) aboard a cargo ship, from New Jersey to Texas, in 1956. McLean’s idea grew into Sea-Land, the giant intermodal transportation company.

Our research also led to a collection of oral history interviews that had been assembled by historians Arthur Donovan, of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, and Andrew Gibson, a former maritime administrator and assistant secretary of commerce for maritime affairs. Between 1995 and 1998 Donovan and Gibson interviewed people who had been involved in the early development of container technology and operations. Their project, supported by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, resulted in a collection of audio tapes and transcripts, housed in the Museum’s Archives Center. As we examined the material, it became clear that there was a lesser known but equally compelling story about the early days of containerization on the West Coast.

Sea-Land intermodal transport
Sea-Land intermodal transport

McLean's concept of global, integrated truck and ship transportation is illustrated in this 1966 Sea-Land Services brochure.

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