Today in Transportation History – 1956: Container Ship Success!

The first commercially successful container ship took its maiden voyage on a route from New Jersey to Texas.

The Ideal X started life as a World War II T-2 oil tanker named Potrero Hills. Built by the Marinship Corporation in the early 1940s as part of its fleet of 93 ships constructed during that time, the Portrero Hills was sold to Malcolm McLean after the war.

Malcolm McLean at a railing, Port Elizabeth, mid-1960s.

McLean was a trucking entrepreneur who pioneered the use of shipping containers that were of a uniform size and could thus be used on multiple modes of transportation – from ships to railroads, to trucks. McLean owned the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and the Potrero Hills was reconfigured to accept the containers on its decks. Engineers reinforced the flat upper deck and added specially-designed grooves to accept the aluminum containers.

After being rechristened as the Ideal X, the ship set off from Port Newark, New Jersey with 58 containers on board bound for Houston, Texas. The five-day journey passed without incident as the Ideal X made its way down the eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. When the containers were off-loaded in Houston, there were already five containers waiting to be taken back north.

This success led McLean to expand his business and led others, especially ports, to invest in bigger cranes and improved infrastructure. Soon, standardized sizes for containers followed along with trade routes across all of the oceans of the world.

The Ideal X, however, did not see the fruits of her trailblazing voyage for very long. She was bought by a Bulgarian shipping company in 1959 and worked for another five years under the name Elemir. She suffered crippling damage in a storm in 1964 and ended her brief life in a scrap yard in Japan later that same year.

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