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The Evolution and History of Shipping Containers - Part 1

Oh, the humble shipping container; they are everywhere. We see them on highways, watch them trundle by at railroad crossings, and if you live near a port city...well, you know the familiar sight of stacked containers waiting their next ports of call.

But it's more likely that those outside the logistics industry have no idea how much those colorful metal boxes revolutionized global shipping. The history and evolution of shipping containers is a story of how innovations in logistics can have a far-reaching impact.The History and Evolution of Shipping Containers Part 1

From Barrels to Boxes

We have certainly come a long way from labor-intensive 18th century methods of handling cargo which was almost entirely break bulk and involved the loading and unloading of many wooden crates, barrels, or sacks. 

The standardized system of containerization in use today has reduced costs, mitigated financial loss through theft or damage, shortened shipping times and virtually eliminated the need for extensive cargo handling, previously required to sort and unload break bulk cargo.

Prior to World War II, there were a number of non-standard methods of containerization across the globe - from simple wooden crates on a truck bed to early attempts at transportation via railway boxcars. During WWII, however, the sheer volume of cargo that was needed to support the war effort inevitably led to early containerization.

It was not until 1955 when entrepreneur Malcom McLean, who formerly owned a trucking company, began working with engineer, Keith Tantlinger to develop the idea of a box container. McLean saw an opportunity to improve on existing methods of containerization, and sought a design that could allow the seamless transport of goods from port-to-port and beyond. Their final product became the standardized containers in use today. McLean's stackable container was constructed of steel and could securely protect a wide variety of cargo at sea. It also boasted a standardized design for efficient loading and unloading of cargo that featured a unique locking mechanism, secure enough to allow the safe use of a crane.

McLean's commitment to standardization and the efficiencies it could bring was such that he made his container patents available to others via royalty-free leases to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Built Around the Boxes

Over the next 30 years, ships and ports changed dramatically to accommodate the shift to containerized transport. New ships were purpose-built to specially accommodate these new boxes and brought increases in cargo volumes to established ports. However, some long-established US ports such as San Francisco and Manhattan could not expand to accept the new influx of containers. Other ports, better equipped to handle newer, deep-draft container ships, emerged as key container ports we recognize today.

The use of ISO standard containers shaped not only the landscape of the world's ports. Truck chassis have also evolved to work with the standard dimensions of shipping containers. Pallets and forklift equipment as well as gantry cranes have all evolved or emerged solely to accommodate modern shipping containers.

Standardization Meets Globalization

What has emerged from the early days of the shipping container is a global economy that moves in boxes. It is estimated that over 90 percent of all bulk cargo travels in a standard shipping container. Economist Mark Levinson suggests that containerization has done more to promote the global economy than all of the combined Free Trade Agreements.

It has been over 50 years since the debut of the modern shipping container and during that time, the demand for consumer goods expanded exponentially across the globe. The rise of e-commerce of all types has contributed to record import volumes

Watch this space for part two in our series The History and Evolution of the Shipping Container as we explore the container of today.


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Download a .pdf Version of our Blog "What Every Importer Should Know  about Overweight Containers"

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