Visionaries | The fathers of the Hamburg container story

Malcom McLean – The innovator

Malcolm McLean, Photo:  A. P. Möller-Maersk

He was ridiculed, treated with contempt, …

... Despite all the resistance, the US citizen Malcom McLean turned his invention into a worldwide success. It was a stroke of genius when, in 1956, a refitted tanker left the Port of New York bound for Houston. On board the ‘Ideal X’ were 58 steel boxes, that were shortly before heaved on board and lashed. Normally it lasted days, if not weeks, to load a freighter sack by sack, pallet by pallet, box by box and to discharge it again. The same work was now done in a few hours, the difference being that the cargo was now in the steel boxes. Through the time-saving the ‘Ideal X’ port call cost McLean only 1,600 Dollars – 90 percent less than under conventional conditions.

Malcom McLean

McLean had had the idea of putting goods and cargo in transport boxes almost 20 years previously. Almost every day the trucking company boss was angry about the long waiting time in the ports until his cargo was finally unloaded from his truck. Why not handle the whole truck, or better said, the trailer? In the course of time the idea emerged for a standardized transport box, the forerunner of today’s containers. However, despite the clear cost-savings, nobody was interested in it. Too great was the anxiety of the trade unions and dockers regarding the new transport system, too little the willingness of the rail and transport companies to risk the high investment.

The converted tanker ‘Ideal X’ is considered to be the first container ship

McLean was however a persistent man and convinced of his idea. He sold his transport company and put the proceeds into setting up his own shipping company, the first container shipping company in the world. The voyage of the ‘Ideal X’ that at the time was hardly noticed by anyone, is today seen for what it was; the birth of container shipping. Even if it still took another good ten years before the first containership reached the continent of Europe and Germany. It was the prelude to a revolution in transportation that changed the world economy forever.


By inventing the container Malcom McLean heralded in a new era in freight transport and decisively contributed to the transformation of the Port of Hamburg. Today, the container is the driving force in the Port, secures jobs, supplies us daily with goods and keeps world trade flowing. In 2004, Malcom McLean was adopted into the Logistics Hall of Fame in recognition of his contribution.

Helmuth Kern – The Courageous

“This box is not coming into my port.”

Helmuth Kern

... This, or something very similar was attributed to the previous Hamburg Port Senator Ernst Plate. This quote shows what the attitude in the City was in the Sixties to the new container transport system. The Senate and an overwhelming part of the port economy thought nothing of the standardized box. Luckily there were others, people like Helmuth Kern, a thinker, shaker and mover, who recognized the container’s potential early on. His great concern was that Hamburg might miss out on a major development.

Helmuth Kern, Photo: HHLA

In 1966, Kern had just become Senator for Economics and Transport, when he surprised everyone with a trendsetting, and for the time, daring suggestion: Upgrading Burchardkai into a container terminal; the cost - 35 million Deutschmarks. “When I first saw container handling in Port Elizabeth in New York, it was immediately clear to me: This transport technology will revolutionize the world,” he said later in an interview. Hamburg’s First Mayor Weichmann was sceptical: In Hamburg there were no containerships, no containers and no shipping line contract. He did not want to put 35 million Deutschmarks on the table for that. However, Kern stood his ground: “If we wait too long, until containerships are coming up the Elbe, it will be too late. We have to begin now,” answered Senator Kern – and how right he was.

The 'American Lancer' was the first pure container ship in the Port of Hamburg

On 31 May 1968, the ‘American Lancer’ made fast at Burchardkai. Helmuth Kern was also standing on the quay wall to welcome the first containership to the Port of Hamburg. However, many were still sceptical. The war-ravaged port had just been rebuilt with many pointed quay wharves and small sheds. However, modern container traffic required space, not a lot of quay walls, plus an innovative infrastructure to the rail and road network. Kern knew: There is no point in closing our eyes to this challenge. We have to change the port structure accordingly.”


The effort of a second rebuilding paid off for the Port of Hamburg, soon once again playing at the world-class level. Today the Port possesses four state-of-the-art, high performance container terminals, annually handling some 9 million TEU. Kern lay the cornerstone for this and much more: During his time in office decisions were taken on major infrastructure projects, such as the building of the Köhlbrand Bridge and the new Elbe Tunnel. In addition from 1976 to 1991, Kern stamped his mark on the development of the port as Chairman of the Executive Board of the city-owned Hamburger Hafen und Lagerhaus AG (today Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG, HHLA).


Here you can once again see that all beginnings are hard. It takes people of courage to take the decisive step, overcoming resistance too. “Hamburg has reason to be grateful to Helmuth Kern,” stated the late ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 2005. Helmuth Kern’s nickname ‘Mr Port’ was very appropriate.


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