History of shipping containers

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History of shipping containers: In December 2014, the British Council marked its 80th anniversary and as part of the celebrations created a list of significant moments that contributed to reshaping the world. One of the global events on this remarkable list that reshaped the logistics and transportation industry forever is containerization.

Before the invention of the first type of container, goods were shipped manually, a process called break bulk cargo. This was a tedious and time-wasting process. Goods had to go through a series of loads and pick-ups. They went from factory to vessel, to warehouse, to another vessel, and so on till they got to their final destinations. This method was not only expensive, but it was also unreliable and time-wasting.

A standard container is indispensable in the transportation and logistics industry. The first container was invented by an American named Malcolm McClean in 1956. He was a trucker and owned the largest trucking company in the country at the time. Before this time, goods were shipped in odd-sized wooden crates, he would watch dock loaders unload freight trucks and transfer this freight to ships, and he knew this process was quite overwhelming. He knew that a standardized cargo transfer process would ease the tedious process as this was undoubtedly a slow and inefficient process. He bought over Pan Atlantic Tanker Company and all its shipping assets and renamed it Sea-Land Shipping. He started experimenting and trying out better ways of loading and unloading trucks. After trying out several methods, the innovation of containers was born which would later become the standard way of transporting cargo from factories to ships and warehouses.

Using containers to load and unload, transport cargoes seamlessly and efficiently through all forms of transportation has gradually become the norm in today’s global transport industry. A standard shipping container is theft resistant, strong, reliable, has a uniform design, easy to transfer, ship, rail, and store.

By April 1956, the first container called the Ideal X was shipped, McClean cleverly modified the ship that transported it, and It successfully made it to Houston from Port Newark carrying 15,000 tonnes of precious petroleum. This was so successful that he had orders coming in for future shipments before they docked their first.

How did the world respond?

The world had suffered from a tedious, time wasting and tiring process. They were ready for change! The U.S. government wasn’t left out as they leveraged McLean’s innovation during the Vietnam war, this was because military goods could now be easily transported on a small budget. This eventually led to a standardization of these container ship fittings and sizes that gave room for more organized and uniform communication between various boats and ports on all ends of a transaction.

By the year 1970, agreements were formed on standardized dimensions, shipping terms, and identification terms. The initial 33ft container now became the 20 and 40ft containers we make use of today.

What happened next?

Within a decade of the Ideal X sailing, each cargo ship was transporting over 200 containers internationally. In no time, the industry began to boom. More vessels were built with a larger capacity to stack more containers.

By mid 80’s, over 4 million containers transported goods all over the world – Europe, Australia, Asia, and South America, the Middle East and Africa soon followed.

The cost of shipping per ton has dramatically reduced from $5.86 in 1956 to $ 0.16 presently, while the rate of loading a cargo has increased more than 25 fold and at least 90% of the world’s countries are containerized. Freight transportation has changed the international trading space as standard containers remains a true revolution in several ways:

  • Cargoes leave the dock sealed and safe, this significantly reduced pilfering and damage while in transit.
  • The process, methods, and labor required to load and offload changed the way businesses were done at the port.
  • Innovation has increased the speed of international trade by reducing shipping time.
  • Innovation reduced the cost of international trade.
  • Containers have moved past just moving goods, they are now also used for workshops, tiny homes, offices, and restaurants.

Containerization has shaped the world we live in by providing opportunities for safe and fast delivery of goods daily. No doubt, this invention impacted the world economy and globalization.

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