The box that changed the world: A history of the shipping container

Until relatively recently, shipping cargo was an expensive, time-consuming process that required weeks of hard manual labour to load a ship. Due to the time and cost involved with shipping in this way, before the invention of the shipping container, most goods would be produced within only a few hundred miles of their final destination. Now, however, it’s likely that the majority of the items you own – from the smartphone in your pocket to the clothes on your back – were produced overseas.nnThe development of the standardised intermodal container is one of the main reasons that these goods are so affordable today. It’s a lofty statement, but it’s true. Here at Unit Hire, we’re proud to be a part of the history of shipping containers – and it’s an interesting history at that. As such, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to share the story of the humble container with you.nn n

The birth of the container

nAlthough we most often associate containers with overseas shipping today, that was not always the case. Like many great creations, the development of the container occurred in Northern England. Originally designed to carry coal from mines to cities in the 18th century into the early 20th century, early containers were wooden boxes pulled by horse and cart – and later loaded onto trains – to their destination. Although these containers could often be stacked, they were never particularly sturdy and, unlike today, there was no standardised size and shape. Furthermore, they were never really used outside of the mining industry, meaning that international trade was never affected by their development.nnSpeaking of international trade. Before the development of the modern intermodal container in the 1950s, loading a ship was 36 times more expensive than it was after the invention of the container. Before the modern containers, we have today were developed, cargo ships were loaded in effectively the same way as they had likely been loaded since the first trade ships were built. Loading a cargo ship in the 1930s in the same way the Romans had loaded their ships 2000 years before would often take weeks.nn So, where did the concept of the modern container come from?nn n

Malcolm McLean

nThe modern container came from the mind of American trucking magnate Malcolm McLean, along with engineer Keith Tantlinger. McLean and Tantlinger’s 8ft x 8ft x 10ft containers formed the basis of the modern intermodal container. The pair realised that a standardised, interlocking design would be the only way forward if their containers were going to succeed.nnIn 1956, McLean sold his trucking company and purchased a Second World War oil tanker which he repurposed into the first viable container ship; the SS Ideal X. The ship could fit 58, 35ft containers on board, loading them on via crane. nnBefore the container was developed, break bulk cargo was taken from a truck by hand, lashed together and stacked unevenly onto a ship. With McLean’s containers, cranes were used to load containers straight from the backs of the trucks delivering the cargo to the port. This dramatically reduced loading times, slashing the time it took to load a cargo ship from weeks to only hours.nnThe SS Ideal X completed its maiden voyage from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas on April 26th, 1956, changing the world of shipping forever. Following the development of McLean’s intermodal containers, shipping became cheaper, faster and, simply, far better than it previously had been. Now, 90% of breakbulk cargo is shipped in containers.nn n

The modern container

nWhile McLean’s idea was successful, it took a while to get off the ground. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that container ships started to become the international standard for transporting cargo. Until this point, most ports did not have the cranes available to load and unload containers from the cargo ships that were growing in popularity. nnIn 1966, McLean’s company Sea-Land Service Inc. completed its first international shipment, sending 236 containers from Newark, New Jersey to Rotterdam in the Netherlands – containers had officially gone global! However, perhaps what really solidified the container as the shipping method of the future was its use in the Vietnam War. Between 1967 and 1973, McLean’s shipping generated $450 million in revenue from the US Department of Defense, delivering 1,200 containers from the USA to Southeast Asia each month.nnThe success of containers during the war meant that by the mid-70s every shipping company around the world was using McLean’s standardised intermodal containers. New port cities such as Oakland in California and Felixstowe in England developed at an incredible rate. Within a few years, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) required all containers to be manufactured in sizes of 10, 20, 30 or 40 feet in length and 8 or 8.6 feet in height.nnContainer ships have come a long way since Malcolm’s SS Ideal X with its 58 container capacity. Today’s cargo ships can carry over 21,000 containers and as you’re reading this there are more than 20,000,000 containers travelling across the ocean. Malcolm McLean’s invention certainly had an incredible impact on the shipping industry, but what’s next for our trusty steel boxes?nn n

Future containers

nIf you’ve read some of our other blog posts, you’ll know that we have great faith in the future of containers. While the shipping industry is bigger than it ever has been and continues to grow every year – soon we might even be seeing planes designed to carry intermodal containers – there’s a lot more to containers than simply their cargo capabilities.nnToday and in the near future, we are going to see plans for more and more container homes, businesses and even schools. These provide cheap, versatile and secure locations for projects that would usually require a lot more expense if built up in traditional bricks and mortar settings. Beyond this, containers may change the world in more unorthodox ways as we see the rise of container farms providing food to the harshest environments in the world.nnSo, thank you, Malcolm McLean, one of the few men to almost single-handedly revolutionise the way that the world operates. We can’t wait to see what the future of shipping containers has in store for us, for you and for the rest of the world. But, could we survive without them?nn nnIf you want to get involved in the future of McLean’s vision with a container reservation for your business or worksite, get in touch with the friendly Unit Hire team. 

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