Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Deepen Charleston's Port, and the Big Ships Will Come

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Deepen Charleston's Port, and the Big Ships Will Come

Article excerpt

Technology has put powerful computers in billions of pockets, but an invention much more mundane than the smartphone -- the shipping container: a rectangular steel box -- also has changed the world. Because of it, two of today's preoccupations -- infrastructure and globalization -- are connected by a chain of events that began more than 60 years ago and today runs through Congress and to the wharves of Charleston's booming port.

In 1934, Malcolm McLean, a North Carolina high school graduate struggling in the Depression, spent $120 earned pumping gas to buy a used truck. In 1955, running what would become the nation's fifth largest trucking company, McLean had an idea: The process of loading ships -- swarms of stevedores stowing (and often pilfering) cargo packed into ships' holds in different sizes of wooden crates -- was so slow that ships often spent more time in ports than at sea. Cargo brought to docks on trucks or rail cars and sealed in standardized containers could be loaded 20 times faster per ton, and for one- 20th the cost.

McLean was no Steve Jobs. He was, however, one reason your smartphone is so affordable, and one reason billions of people around the world, having been swept into the global trade system that McLean's boxes facilitate, can afford such phones.

Protruding from one of the approximately 10,000 containers here are 13-foot- tall tires ($80,000 apiece) heading for off-road mining vehicles in Australia, Brazil and elsewhere. The tires are made in Lexington, S.C. About 200 miles inland, in the Greenville- Spartanburg area, there is a building boom ignited by the Charleston port, and now by the widening of the Panama Canal.

Since June, the canal's new lane has the ability to handle enormous ships that carry 14,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) rather than the 5,000 TEUs on ships using the canal before it was widened. The big ships bring Asian goods to America's East Coast, and take American goods abroad. …

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