Keith W. Tantlinger, the innovative engineer whose inventions turned Malcom McLean’s vision for container shipping into reality, died at his home in Escondido, Calif., on Aug. 27. He was 92.
Tantlinger developed much of the early technology that made modern container shipping possible. McLean described him as “the man who did the most to get the containers on ships.”
His designs included the corner casting and twist-lock systems found on every shipping container, the spreader bar for automatic securing of containers lifted on and off ships, and the ship-shore container transfer apparatus for the first cellular container ship.
In 2009, he was awarded the Gibbs Brothers Medal by the National Academy of Sciences, for “his visionary and innovative design of the cellular container ship and supporting systems that transformed the world's shipping fleet and facilitated the rapid expansion of global trade.”
A licensed mechanical engineer and fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, he was granted 79 U.S. patents, all related to transportation equipment.
Tantlinger’s work in containerization began with a phone call from McLean in early 1955. McLean had just acquired Pan-Atlantic Steamship Co., which later became Sea-Land Service. Tantlinger was vice president of engineering at Brown Trailer Co., a Toledo, Ohio, manufacturer.
McLean had heard about the Brown’s reinforced aluminum containers, which Ocean Van Lines stacked two high on barges in a pioneering service launched in 1950 between the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. After testing two of them, McLean ordered 200 more — and asked Tantlinger to work for him.
Tantlinger agreed, and plunged into preparation for the April 26, 1956, sailing of the converted tanker Ideal X from Newark, N.J., to Houston, now is considered the launch of the modern era of container shipping. The Ideal X carried 58 containers, each 33 feet long, on deck.
Charles R. Cushing, naval architect and president of C.R. Cushing & Co. in New York, said Tantlinger convinced McLean that the containers could be separated from chassis and stacked. McLean previously had been thinking of ships that would carry trailers with wheels attached.
Eighteen months after the sailing of the Ideal X, Pan-Atlantic introduced the first cellular container ship, the Gateway City, a converted C-2 freighter.
To allow boxes to be stacked below deck, Tanglinger invented the twistlock, which allowed a crane operator to automatically grab and release containers within the tight confines of the ship’s container cell guides.
The twistlock made cellular ships possible. Tantlinger later said that he felt his most important accomplishment was his role in creating a global standard for container-handling technology that allowed the industry to flourish.
McLean agreed in 1965 to release the patent rights to Tantlinger’s design for twistlocks and container corner posts, and the International Organization for Standardization used it as the basis for what remains the worldwide standard.
Tantlinger grew up in California, and began his engineering career with Douglas Aircraft during World War II. After leaving Pan-Atlantic, he became vice president of engineering and manufacturing at Fruehauf Corp.
Later he was senior vice president, ground transportation systems, at Rohr Industries, where he worked on the basic structure and many features of rapid transit cars for the Bay Area Rapid Transit and Washington Metropolitan
Survivors include his wife, Wanda; daughter Susan L. Tantlinger of Clark, Wyo.; stepson, Daniel W. Delinger; and two grandchildren. At his request there will be no service.