aerial photograph taken above the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015
© Patrick T Fallon/Bloomberg

It is tempting when considering the history of transport’s great innovators to focus on the eye-catching achievements of colourful geniuses such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer. Having cut his engineering teeth on his father’s Thames Tunnel, the world’s first under a navigable river, Brunel went on to engineer the Great Western Railway, the finest railway of its day, and the Great Britain, the first iron steamship powered by a screw propeller.

But those who produce a striking new object such as Brunel or Sir Frank Whittle, one of the inventors of the turbojet engine, have seldom been those who transformed the world. Instead, the true history of breakthroughs in transport has been written by a series of individuals — some charismatic, some, like Alfred P Sloan, the key figure in the history of General Motors, determinedly dull — who focused relentlessly on cost and efficiency or making a new product more attractive to customers.

The example par excellence is Malcom McLean, inventor of the container-shipping system, who realised the container’s potential not because he was an expert in shipping but because he was interested in transporting goods cheaply. He is said to have had an epiphany while sitting in his truck waiting for dockers to unload wool. It would be far easier, he realised, if they simply took the whole rear of his truck and put it on the ship, rather than unpack it all.

McLean invented little — the steel box was, after all, not a breakthrough technology — but he had unique insights into its possible applications.

“I don’t think it’s the inventor of the technology that takes it forward,” Christian Wolmar, a British transport writer and historian, says. He points to George Stephenson, the British engineer who, with his son Robert, exported early rail technology around the world, as a prime example. Neither Stephenson invented the steam locomotive or rail transport, but the pair are remembered because, unlike Richard Trevithick, the Cornish mining engineer who invented the first moving steam locomotive, they produced a system sufficiently efficient and reliable that the advantages over existing modes of transport were obvious.

“The idea seems to be that the people who harness technologies [that already exist] take them forward,” Wolmar says. “Trevithick invented the first moving locomotive on tracks, but he just didn’t develop it, so other people took it forward.”

Other transport innovators have grappled with similar challenges. All transport methods need a motor that is light, efficient and reliable enough to make the vehicle as a whole an efficient means to transport goods or people. The vehicle needs to be light enough for the engine to move it but strong enough to withstand the movement.

The Stephensons’ advantage over Trevithick was that they devised a system of connecting rods and valves that captured an acceptable proportion of the energy in the steam they produced to move their locomotive. Their wrought iron rails proved less susceptible to breakage than the cast iron rails on which Trevithick relied.

Early pioneers of the car — including Karl Benz, a rare pioneer who built a successful business — faced similar problems developing an internal combustion engine and gears efficient enough to carry its energy to the wheels. The Wright brothers’ work in developing powered flight focused on maximising lift, minimising drag and establishing an effective control mechanism.

The challenges since those breakthroughs have been to produce the vehicles cheaply enough for the mass market — as Henry Ford did with his moving production line; to manage the enterprise effectively, as Alfred Sloan learned to do at GM; or to cut out waste, as Herb Kelleher did at Southwest Airlines.

Yet, as Wolmar points out, there are also instructive lessons in technologies that have failed. Magnetic levitation trains have been a perpetual technology of the future for decades, struggling to match the efficiency and economy of steel wheel on steel rail. Electric cars continue to struggle with the weight penalty of moving a heavy battery. Space exploration has failed to become safe, reliable and energy-efficient enough to be routine.

A number of companies are working on these challenges. It is just as likely, however, that solutions to transport’s intractable problems will come from an unexpected quarter. A Malcom McLean will sit in a truck and, frustrated, see a new way of moving things. The idea will then, like many before, seem so powerful and obvious that the wonder will be that it was never invented before.

Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook
Thomas Cook © Corbis

The secret of Thomas Cook’s success can be distilled into three factors: a long life, a son with a similar single-mindedness and a knack for marketing, writes Roger Blitz.

By the time of his death in 1892 at the age of 83, Cook had devoted a half century to selling the benefits of travel to a British public coming to terms with the joys and possibilities of transportation. From arranging train excursions in the early days for temperance society members between Midlands towns in the UK, to exotic steamship passages across the globe, he made an indelible impression on western civilisation — at least for the better-off.

Cook trained as a cabinet-maker, but as a Baptist preacher he learnt the very useful art of how to spread the word. The pamphlet was his tool — the Google of its day. When he organised his first large-scale commercial enterprise — a rail trip from Leicester to Liverpool — he meticulously researched the journey and gave each traveller a handbook of the journey.

Cook expanded his horizons and those of his customers. The corners of the British Isles were soon conquered. The Great Exhibition of 1851 helped secure his national reputation — Cook organised trips for thousands of people from the Midlands and north of England to the exhibition in London.

Crossing the English Channel to mainland Europe, Cook established the circular tour, so that travellers were able to sample different places on the way back to those they had seen on the way out. Diarists helped promote his explorations, hoteliers agreed to accept coupons for board and meals and financial houses gave Cook’s travellers local currency in exchange for “circular notes” — the forerunner of the traveller’s cheque.

All this breaking new ground needed someone back home to mind the shop. That task fell to his son, John Mason Cook, managing the business from its City office at Ludgate Circus. Father was the idealist, son the hard-headed commercial operator. They fell out.

Thomas Cook enjoyed perhaps his crowning glory — the world tour of 1872–73 that propelled Cook’s, as the company became known, into India (first-class, three-month passage via P&O steamer to Bombay, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Delhi and Lahore — £113 7s) and on to global recognition as an ambitious pioneer with an inquiring mind and a love of exploration.

Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher
Herb Kelleher © Chip East/Bloomberg

It was while sitting in a bar in San Antonio, Texas, in 1967 that Herb Kelleher looked at the map his friend Rollin King had sketched on a cocktail napkin and made a decision, writes Robert Wright. The pair would turn the network of airline routes King had drawn into an operational airline.

Nearly 50 years on, Southwest Airlines’ network stretches across the continental US and Caribbean. More significantly, the ideas roughed out in that bar have spawned multiple imitators in Europe and Asia, and done as much as almost anyone since the Wright brothers to open up flying to ordinary people.

The innovations were mainly to do with discarding the unnecessary. Kelleher moved away from the big airlines’ efforts to provide a comprehensive service via complex hub-and-spoke operations. Southwest instead took passengers between two points with strong traffic flows and often used smaller airports rather than big regional hubs. Southwest also discarded complex in-flight catering and multiple seat classes. Its aircraft consequently spent less time on the ground than rivals’ and worked far harder. The airline was thus able to offer far lower fares than rivals.

As with Malcom McLean and container shipping, Kelleher’s thinking partly reflected a desire to circumvent onerous regulations. The company initially operated only within Texas to sidestep federal regulation and still spent a year before it launched operations in 1971 dealing with legal challenges from rivals.

However, Southwest’s success would have been impossible without the deregulation of air travel in the US under legislation passed in 1978 that scrapped the federal government’s role in setting fares and routes.

Kelleher’s irreverent style set the tone for imitators, such as Ireland’s Ryanair. He continues at age 84 to smoke and drink enthusiastically, and has embraced eye-catching stunts. In 1992, in a dispute with another airline over the rights to an advertising slogan, Kelleher agreed to settle the matter via an arm-wrestling match, rather than in court.

In a profoundly cyclical industry, Southwest has been profitable for each of the past 42 years.

Malcom McLean

Malcom McLean
Malcom McLean © Getty Images

When Malcom McLean oversaw the loading of 58 containers on to the Ideal X, a converted oil tanker, at Newark, New Jersey, in April 1956, he could have had little idea that within 60 years his innovation would change the shape of global transport, writes Robert Wright. McLean, a trucker from North Carolina, was, according to Marc Levinson’s history of container shipping, The Box, simply seeking to undercut the high costs of the US’s heavily regulated trucking industry. The Ideal X did so triumphantly — the ship is said to have moved the 58 containers to Houston, Texas, for the same cost as sending just one box by road.

Yet McLean’s insight would transform the economics of moving goods around the world and, by doing so, alter economic geography. Because containers could be loaded far faster than most traditional bulk cargoes, it quickly became possible to operate far bigger ships than previously, to gain huge economies of scale — and to employ far fewer dock workers.

Today, the largest container ships can carry 20,000teu (twenty foot equivalent units) of containers, and ports can quickly and efficiently handle the vast quantities of goods unloaded from ships, loading boxes on to trucks to complete their journey, while the terminal operators load the ships with other containers.

It is the plummeting transport costs brought on by McLean’s innovation that has made much of the industrialised world’s manufacturing migrate to China and other Asian countries over the past 30 years, spurring those countries’ economic development. Sea-Land, McLean’s company, helped to start that process after it won a contract to supply the US military in Vietnam. It would drop off empty containers in Japan on the way home to the US, helping to start Japan’s export-led boom.

McLean also made mistakes. Sea-Land invested heavily in the early 1970s in superfast vessels that became profoundly uneconomical after the 1973 oil crisis. Another innovation — big vessels with small, economical engines — failed because they were underpowered. But his fundamental innovation in the shipping of goods remains as startlingly powerful as it was simple.

Letter in response to this article:

Knocked out by honour / From Herb Kelleher

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