A Brief History of the Shipping Container

8 days ago   •   5 min read

By Silverbird Content Team

The shipping container was arguably the most important innovation of the 20th century.

Think about it. Roughly 80% to 90% of goods traded internationally are transported by sea in a shipping container. In 2020, that equated to $14 trillion worth of goods.

Containerisation drove globalisation faster than 50 years of trade agreements and pacts. If you live in the UK, a great portion of your personal property came off a ship – from clothing, furniture, and electronics to vehicles and food.

How did this come about? Let’s break it down for you.


This article at a glance

Transporting goods globally was a time-consuming job before the introduction of the standardised shipping container. Goods were susceptible to theft and damage. The development and standardisation of containers in the 1950s vastly changed the shipping scene. Items could now be transported with minimal handling. Over the coming years, further automation at shipping ports will smoothen the container transit process. Both time and shipping costs will reduce.


What is a shipping container?

A 20-ft shipping container. Photo credit: https://dedola.com/2011/10/what-is-a-teu/

Shipping containers are strong metal boxes that transport goods from place to place. Usually made of steel, these containers are sturdy to withstand arduous intercontinental journeys. Goods are packed on pallets (wooden or plastic crates) and are often shrink-wrapped to protect the items inside.

The ISO dimensions of commonly used shipping containers are either 20ft (6.06m) or 40ft (12.2m) in length, with standard widths of 8ft (2.43m) and heights of 8.5ft (2.59m). Taller shipping containers, or high cubes, measure as tall as 9.5ft (2.89m) high. Contrary to their sizes, smaller 20ft containers carry heavier items such as iron ore and rock, and larger 40ft containers ship lighter goods such as clothing, electronics and furniture.

Shipping Container Dimensions. Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/562035228496074803/

A Brief History of the Shipping Container

Amphorae. Photo credit: https://www.amphora.ca/ideas/2020/6/18/what-does-amphora-mean-anyway

Adam Smith wrote that humanity was born “to dig, truck and barter”. In other words, it’s in our nature to trade goods, travel, and migrate.

As early as 1600 B.C., people imported and exported goods over land and sea routes. The ancient Greeks used amphorae to store goods travelling by sea.

Over the centuries, trade grew exponentially. People noticed that packing and sending goods in odd-shaped containers didn’t optimise ship capacity and the volume of goods the containers could carry. Additionally, it was challenging to balance the weight of the goods onboard a vessel. Items also needed to be unpacked and repacked at transit points, which increased the threat of theft and damage.

The modern-day shipping container’s predecessors were wooden boxes that transported coal on horse-drawn wagons and trains in the early 18th century. The coal mining industry of England pushed the development and adoption of these wooden boxes. By the 1840s, sturdier iron boxes replaced wooden boxes.

In 1948, the U.S. Army used rigid steel shipping containers called transporters. They measured 2.5 feet long, 6.25 feet wide and 6.83 feet high. The transporters were used to transport war machinery and supplies and had a capacity of about 9,000 pounds.

Container Shipping’s Trucking Roots

In 1937, an American truck driver named Malcolm McLean delivered cotton bales to a port in North Carolina. As he waited for his truck to unload, he observed that dockhands put so much effort and time into loading thousands of small packages onto the ship. He wondered if there was a more efficient way to do this, like loading the whole truck onboard rather than unloading it first.

By 1955, McLean had fine-tuned his idea and purchased two oil tankers to experiment with his container shipping concept. He identified heavy steel as a suitable material for the containers as they could withstand the rough seas. McLean envisioned that the containers would stack on the freight hull and thus needed to be flat without any wheels.

He refitted the ships and modified them so the ships could carry the steel containers securely. McLean also patented a steel-reinforced corner-post structure that allowed the containers to be gripped for lifting on and off ships and trucks.

He gave it a name – ‘Ideal X’. It remains the standard shipping container we use today.

Corner-Post. Photo credit: https://i0.wp.com/www.shippingandfreightresource.com/wp-content/uploads/Anatomy-of-shipping-container-parts-2.jpg?ssl=1 .

‘Ideal X’ successfully set sail on 26th April 1956 as the first freighter to transport goods using containers. Fifty-eight containers went on the maiden journey from Newark to Houston. The goods arrived safe, secure, and dry.

Not long after, The ‘Maxton’ – the first ship designed to ship 60 containers on its deck – began its service. Loading costs plummeted from USD 5.86 per tonne to only 16 cents (1956 prices). Understandably, securing new clients for his shipping service was a breeze. McLean rallied port authorities to invest in upgrading their dockyard facilities to accommodate and store his new shipping containers.

He named his company SeaLand. McLean’s great idea reformed international shipping by slashing costs and saving transit and loading/unloading time. By the end of the 1960s, SeaLand boasted a fleet of more than 27,000 containers and 36 ships and served 30 major ports. In 1969, McLean sold his company for $160 million. Presently, SeaLand is a division of the Maersk group.

What are shipping containers like now?

Shipping containers have come a long way since the 1960s. Refrigerated containers, or reefers, were developed to carry temperature-sensitive products such as perishable food and medicine. Tunnel containers have two doors for faster loading and unloading of goods. Wireless security systems enhance the goods’ protection against theft. There are even car containers to ship multiple cars safely.

Other things have changed too. 85% of shipping container manufacturers are based in China. This caused significant disruption to the global supply chain when the Chinese government instituted country-wide lockdowns in 2020. This caused a temporary blood clot in the arteries of the worldwide supply chain. There weren’t enough shipping containers being made to transport goods.

Ships are getting bigger too. Currently, the Ever Alot is the world’s largest container ship. It has a carrying capacity of 24,004 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit, the measure of volume in units of a twenty-foot long container). The Ever Alot measures a whopping 400 metres long and 61.5 metres wide. That’s roughly four football pitches in length.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better. Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCVs) like the Ever Alot pose a problem to the environment. ULCVs dump waste into the sea, emit toxic emissions, and their paint pollutes the water. Indeed, some estimates claim that over 675 shipping containers are lost at sea every year. They can only call ports at major hubs and terminals adapted to serve their enormous size. They might even get stuck in the Suez Canal and cause a worldwide supply chain disruption. However, this doesn’t deter the shipping industry from dreaming up even bigger ships. The construction of 30,000 TEU ships may start as early as 2025.

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Author: Syahirah Aiman
Illustration: Kate Faldina

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