Shipping containers are essential for many businesses, yet they are often taken for granted. Before the introduction of shipping containers, businesses relied on horse-drawn carriages and railroads to move goods across the land. Freight was manually loaded onto ships to send goods overseas. Shipping containers simplified the way that people ship items across the globe, revolutionizing the shipping and transportation industries.
Origins of the Shipping Container
In the late 18th century, companies began using wooden containers to transport supplies or goods from one site to the next. The use of timber boxes made it easier to offload items at a warehouse during each leg of a shipment.
By the start of the 20th century, factories and warehouses primarily stored goods in wood crates or containers. However, there were no standard dimensions or specifications. Leading up to World War II, several European countries and the US railroad industry independently began developing container systems. Various wood or metal containers were soon used to transport everything from mail to building supplies.
After the stock market crash of 1929, the transportation industry suffered severely. The United States and Europe began the development of containerization to increase the efficiency of freight transport and boost the transportation industry.
Containerization is a form of intermodal freight transport that uses intermodal containers. The term “intermodal” refers to the multiple modes of transportation used for moving the containers. In 1933, the International Chamber of Commerce in Europe established the International Container Bureau (BIC). The BIC outlined standard parameters for containers used for international transport. The standards included obligatory norms for various loading capacities.
World War II put a stop to containerization development. However, the United States Army began combining items of similar sizes and loading them onto pallets to streamline the loading and unloading of supplies from transport ships.
Early Intermodal Container Systems
In 1951, the BIC and the Swiss Museum of Transport held demonstrations to select the most effective container system for transporting goods across Europe and overseas. The group selected a system called Laadkisten (loading bins) from the Netherlands.
The European system used roller containers that could be moved by ship, truck, or rail. Each container had a capacity of 12,100 pounds and measured a little over 10 feet long. The following year, the United States Army developed the Container Express (CONEX) box system. Unlike the European system, CONEX used stackable modular containers. Companies could stack three CONEX boxes without damaging the contents.
Introduction of the Modern Intermodal Container
Despite the use of the European ISO container and the CONEX box system, the transportation industry still used a wide range of boxes and containers to transport items. Malcolm McLean, the owner of one of the largest trucking companies in North America, wanted to develop a more efficient system.
McLean planned on shipping goods along the Atlantic Coast of the US, sending shipments from North Carolina to New York. The existing trailer-ships wasted potential cargo space. McLean teamed with engineer Keith Tantlinger to create a shipping container that could easily be transported to a port warehouse, stored, and then loaded onto a ship for long sea voyages. He also wanted to maximize the capacity of the ships carrying the cargo.
In 1956, McLean obtained a $22 million loan and purchased two World War II tankers. He converted the tankers to carry containers on and below the decks. McLean and Tantlinger also developed new intermodal containers constructed from corrugated steel. The containers measured 8 x 8 x 10 feet.
Using the new tankers and containers, McLean’s trucking company could load cargo without manual loading. The containers included a twist-lock mechanism in each corner, allowing cranes to easily secure and lift the boxes. At the time, hand-loading a ship with longshoremen cost about $5.86 per ton. Using McLean’s system, the cost was just $0.16 per ton.
Along with the cost savings, the new intermodal container system significantly reduced the time needed to load or unload a ship. By the end of the 1960s, tens of thousands of containers based on McLean’s original designs were being used to ship goods throughout the globe.
The Development of International Standards
Despite the popularity of McLean’s containers, companies continued to use a wide variety of container sizes. Many of the containers also had different corner fittings, making them incompatible with certain container systems and cargo ships.
In the late 1960s, the biggest operators in the transportation industry each used a different container system. Matson Navigation Company used 24-foot containers while Sea-Land Service used 35-foot containers.
International shipping companies, railroad companies, and US trucking companies began working on standard sizes and fittings. Through a series of compromises, several ISO recommendations helped standardize global containerization.
The initial standards for shipping containers include:
- ISO 688: introduced the terminology and dimensions for containers
- R-890: defined the markings for identification on the containers
- R-1161: included recommendations for the corner fittings
- R-1897: created minimum internal dimensions for containers
Containerization reduced the cost of international trade, allowing consumer goods and commodities to quickly reach overseas destinations. The impact of containerization also extended beyond the shipping industry. Standardized containers were soon used in the trucking and rail transport industries, creating a truly intermodal container system.
By 2009, about 90% of all non-bulk cargo was being transported via containers stacked on ships. Making it easier for companies to ship cargo to any location in the world dramatically increased international trade. It helped boost the efficiency of shipping and transport. In the end, containerization may be one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century.