How Shipping Containers Shaped Our World: The Untold Story of This Important Invention

Jan 4, 2024 | 0 comments

Want to know one of the last century’s most important shipping inventions?

It’s probably something you often see in the background of your daily life.

As you drive down the highway or past a trainyard or dock, you are bound to see the humble but oh-so-important shipping container on the move.

My Fascination With Containers

Every time I drive by a port, I tap way down deep into my boyhood curiosity and gawk in amazement at the shipping yards.

Saying to my kids excitedly “Just look at those containers! That’s how most of the world’s goods are transported. From the shoes on your feet to the car we’re in!”

“Yeah, yeah, Dad” they say. But I can tell they are also kind of impressed.

Having spent years in China and seen some of the world’s largest ports, I have always marveled at it all.

The trucks.

The cranes.

The stacks upon stacks of containers.

It’s incredible how the whole “dance” works.

What Shipping Was Like Before Containers

But did you know that 70 years ago, the humble container did not yet exist?

Goods were loaded in odd sized boxes—sacks even—and the amount of manual handling was enormous at all points in the process.

Enter Malcolm McLean, a trucking company owner from North Carolina.

The year was 1952.

Like many entrepreneurs, he had a problem that needed solving.

He saw how inefficient the process was:

➡️ All of the time needed.

➡️ The wasted space on ships and trucks.

➡️ The safety hazards.

➡️ How easy it was for theft to occur.

How Containers Came to Be

And like any good entrepreneur, he went to work on a solution.

At first he copied an old World War II practice of shipping his trucks on boats.

These were known as “trailerships.”

But it became clear there was still too much wasted space and cost.

Seizing the post-war opportunity, McLean bought two old World War II T-2 tankers at a discount.

He then retrofitted them to carry the first containers.

And designed trailer chassis to allow for removable containers.

The First Shipment

The first ship sailed in 1956, from New Jersey to the Port of Houston, with 58 containers on board.

Back then, hand-loading a ship cost $5.86 a ton.

With his containers, the cost was only $0.16 a ton.

Obviously, a massive savings!

Overcoming Challenges and Growing

With time, McLean expanded his operation and sailings.

Industry uptake was initially slow as ports simply did not have the cranes or equipment to handle containers.

Unions also strongly resisted the idea.

But the improvements in cost and efficiency could not be ignored.

And by the late 1960s, containers were in service across many parts of the globe.

Competition ramped up.

Shipyards were upgraded.

Specialty ships were built.

Two sizes we know today became the norm: 20-foot and 40-foot containers.

The advent of the container was a huge contribution to globalization, improving access and reducing the costs of goods we use every day in our lives.

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