Before container shipping, trucks were manually unloaded by longshoremen, loaded onto ships, and the process repeated at the destination. This added enormous cost, slowed shipping times and increased the risk of breakage.
Inspired by WWII standardization, McLean designed containers that fit directly on ships. His standardized containers and ships enable faster and less expensive loading and unloading of ships.
Container shipping puts the cargo part of trucks, the “container,” on ships, no unloading and reloading needed.
McLean’s containers move directly between trucks and ships. To spur scale and encourage standardization, he licensed his patents for free.
In 1969, McLean sold his company to RJR Reynolds for $500 million, pocketing $160 million personally. A later company, that envisioned super-shipping ships, went bankrupt. McLean made money, lost much of it in a later venture, and died comfortable but without recognizing the bulk of the wealth he created.
In total, he founded three companies that went on to be listed on the NYSE. At one point, he was one of the 400 wealthiest men in the US. However, due to bad investments, he went bankrupt.
Container shipping remains the dominant form of shipping. The OOCL Hong Kong is 400 meters long (5.5 football fields), 60 meters wide, and 32.5 meters deep.