FOR someone who transformed global commerce, Malcom McLean died in relative obscurity.
Here's a guy rated among the top 10 innovators of the past 40 years (American Heritage), named Man of the Century (the International Maritime Hall of Fame), and called "one of the few men who changed the world" (Forbes).
And yet when he died May 25, Mr. McLean rated just 538 words in the New York Times. The Sun's wire-service obituary summed up his life in five paragraphs.
The page opposite ran an editorial on Mr. McLean's contributions, but few others took notice.
Yet he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade.
Fulton's contribution, the commercially successful steamboat, happened in 1807. It would eventually end the era of sailing ships.
Mr. McLean's contribution, containerization, happened in 1956. It transformed the maritime world.
It had a huge impact on Baltimore. This city's port took a big risk when it jumped on the container bandwagon, but it paid off: Baltimore became the second-busiest handler of trailer-sized steel boxes on the East Coast.
Containers still constitute 70 percent of Baltimore's port business at its public terminals.
Helen Delich Bentley, this city's tenacious maritime maven, delivered a eulogy at Malcom McLean's New York funeral, calling him "a risk-taker who gambled to pursue his dreams, his visions; a man whose way of life was to put new ideas into effect."
He was, she said, "the consummate industrialist entrepreneur who never seemed to tire of taking on new ventures because he never seemed fulfilled by the old ones."
Quite a compliment. And quite a legacy he leaves behind.
The container's impact on global commerce has been enormous. It made it inexpensive to move cargo from remote Third World countries in quantities never dreamed of. Every nation became a player in the world economy.
Like most brainstorms, Mr. McLean's was a simple notion: Securely pack cargo in steel boxes that can be driven to ports on truck beds, then lifted aboard ship in one swoop by giant dock cranes.
The idea had hit him in the 1930s, while idly sitting on a New Jersey dock waiting all day for cargo he'd hauled there in his truck to be reloaded onto a ship.
There had to be a better way - and there was.
But innovations involve risk. Mr. McLean so believed in his idea he sold his successful trucking company - he'd built it into the second-largest less-than-truckload carrier in the country - to try out his untested idea.
Railroads fought him. Labor unions were apoplectic. Ports and steamship lines proved remarkably hidebound.
Yet the idea worked. Cargo could be quickly and safely packed into a container, placed on the bed of a truck, driven to port and lifted onto the deck of a ship.
Today, containers are stacked to the height of skyscrapers, it seems, on gigantic ships built to carry hundreds of Malcom McLean's invention. Containers handle 90 percent of all cargo worldwide.
Not only is it quick and easy, it is cheap and greatly reduces the risk of damage or theft. Around-the-world shipping, now a part of our daily lives, owes it all to one man's idea - and one man's ability to make it happen.
Mr. McLean had another brainstorm in 1978: Build giant, fuel-efficient container ships to take advantage of economies of scale in an era of high oil prices.
He was a quarter-century ahead of his time. When oil prices sank, so did Mr. McLean's company. But today, every container shipping line has copied his move.
What a visionary capitalist: the only person to establish three companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange (as well as two other companies listed on the Nasdaq market).
Malcom McLean saw ships as waterborne tractors, hauling hundreds of stacked trailers. To him, the oceans were highways of commerce, duplicating what the trucking industry has accomplished on land. Containers bridged the gap. Thus, he called his breakthrough company Sea-Land.
He's worth more than an obligatory obituary. Changing the face of world commerce is a pretty far-reaching contribution.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.