Agents Of Change


These are truly important people who remain unknown, but they are not a representative cross section of anything, and they are not players in great well-known historical movements like civil rights or feminism. Nor are they any kind of top ten. But they are a core section into a neglected stratum of the record, a layer of history where quiet people quietly change our lives in ways that affect us through and through, every day.


Malcom McLean engineered one of the two or three vital shifts in transportation in the last century. More than GATT or the 747, his development of containerized shipping changed world trade. It has been compared to the transition from sail to steam. It reduced shipping times from the United States to Europe by some four weeks, cutting loading and unloading at the docks from days to hours and enabling a vessel to carry four to five times as much freight as before. Workers no longer dreaded descending into ship holds, and cargoes rode in the far greater security of sealed containers.

Containerization, though, can best be viewed as a kind of technical Northwest Passage or Suez Canal, changing not only economics but geopolitics by connecting land and sea transport more profoundly than canals connect bodies of water. As “intermodality”—linkage between modes of transportation—became a favorite word not only of the freight industry but of executives and politicians who understood that clichés about the global economy could only be made tangible at docksides and on tarmacs, McLean proved himself a kind of Cortés and de Lesseps in one, a mental explorer and engineer.

Born in 1914 in rural Maxton, North Carolina, McLean bought his first truck in 1931. Six years later he found himself cooling his heels while his truck’s contents were loaded onto a ship in Hoboken, New Jersey. It occurred to him, he would later recall, that there must be some way simply to lift the trailer right onto the vessel and save enormous time and labor.

The idea stayed with him over two decades as that single truck multiplied to several, tens, and then hundreds. After he had built McLean Trucking into one of the nation’s largest freight fleets, he had the resources to return to his idea, designing containers and a specially fitted ship. On April 26, 1956, the first of his container ships, the Ideal X , left Port Newark a few miles from the Hoboken pierside where McLean had had his brainstorm.

It would take a full decade of battles against entrenched shipping firms, railroads, and unions before McLean went international, dispatching a container ship to Rotterdam in 1966. Soon the lower shipping costs produced by containerization made it possible for Americans to eat apples from New Zealand, record on Japanese VCRs, wear Hong Kong-produced jeans, and drink French Perrier water. Today, if you use it, eat it, or wear it, it probably reached you via a shipping container.

Containerization changed the landscape as well. You can see the revolution McLean wrought from the air above New York Harbor. To the east the crumbling piers of Brooklyn and Manhattan signal the old way of doing business. In the early 1950s the city had extensively redeveloped Brooklyn’s Furman Street piers, the setting for On the Waterfront . But immediately afterward McLean’s containerized shipping arrived, and the investment in the old break-bulk system was obsolete. On the western side of New York Harbor, by contrast, you see the flourishing ports of Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. There great stacks of containers sit straddled by the gantry cranes that pile them. Black tracks of rails and asphalt run toward them like furrows of earth. Any number of older cities have been so altered.

In 1969 McLean sold his containership company, Sea-Land, to R. J. Reynolds, which in turn sold it to CSX. The industry he had established would soon be dominated by huge Asian firms. The ships grew larger and larger—stacked so high with containers they seemed ready to capsize—and the system grew more and more sophisticated.

The cargo that once arrived in boxes, bales, barrels, and bags now comes in blank containers, with no indication to the human eye of their contents, but only a product code that machines can scan and computers trace. The system of that tracking has become so exact that a two-week journey can be timed for arrival within fifteen minutes. That fact has helped make possible another fundamental change in the world economy: global “just-in-time” manufacturing, in which, for instance, automobile engines from Japan arrive at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, still sealed in their containers, less than an hour before they are placed beneath the hoods of cars.



Highway 61, the legendary blacktop road celebrated in blues lyrics, was the highway of freedom from the Mississippi Delta. And its northern conclusion, at least spiritually, was Maxwell Street, the jostling marketplace that was Chicago’s equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side. There the sons of sharecroppers mingled with the sons of kulaks. Maxwell Street was the eventual destination of two boys, Leonard and Phil Chez, who arrived at Ellis Island from a village near Pinsk, Poland, on Columbus Day 1928 and traded their last name for Chess.