A history of shipping containers and containerisation


With over 17 million shipping containers globally making a total of around 200 million trips every year, we often don’t give a second thought to the humble beginnings of this item; a necessity in today’s World for the transportation of goods.

However the impact that the development of the shipping container had on the global markets was dramatic, changing the industry and transportation of products drastically.

The idea of shipping products in containers is a very old one. The ancient Greeks used sealed vases – or amphorae to transport both liquid and dry products, mostly wine. Later cultures used large trunks and wooden chests to ship valuables, tea and spices from the Far East.


Shipping in the 1930’s

Even as recent as the 1930’s the traditional approach to shipping was to adopt break-bulk container handling,  where goods were transported loose or packaged in boxes, bags,

barrels, or other relatively small containers that varied depending on the type of good. This method of transportation meant that large teams of port workers were required in order to unload every shipment that arrived. Ships would often spend as long in port as they would at sea.


The 1950’s and containerisation

Everything then changed in the 1950’s when Malcom McLean, a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina, USA, realized that if transportation could be integrated it would be much simpler, quicker and less expensive to have one container that could be lifted from a vehicle directly on to a ship without first having to unload its contents. Inspired by the US Military who had begun using 8’6″x6’3″x6″10″ metal shipping containers during World War II McLean developed the concept of using metal shipping containers for the commercial market. Larger than the containers used by the military, yet still capable of being transported by truck or train, in 1956 McLean shipped a vessel loaded with 58 metal shipping containers from Newark to Houston thus giving rise to the birth of containerisation.

The impact proved positive for businesses shipping goods as containerisation led to decreased shipping costs due to economies of scale and lower staffing costs, as well as better cargo security. Products were no longer visible to the casual viewer so were less likely to be stolen, and with the doors of containers generally sealed, tampering became a less likely occurrence.

However, the expanded use of containers was immediately felt by port workers. The amount of goods per worker that could be loaded or unloaded with containers compared to break bulk was much higher meaning fewer workers were required.


Shipping containerisation in the 1960’s and 70’s

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s as containerization became the norm, ISO specifications were introduced to ensure standardization of container sizes across the shipping industry, which allowed for more aggressive investment in purpose built vessels and container-handling equipment.New ports had to be developed as the larger vessels required deeper water and containerised trade required more space. The lower shipping costs associated with containerisation led to additional volume in trade and despite there not being a need for warehouses at portside, space was required for the containers themselves. Port operations were moved away from city centres such as London and New York to less developed locations nearby such as Tilbury and Elizabeth respectively, where there was the space available that was required.

To this day vessels continue to increase in size and investments made to improve port facilities to enable the shipment of goods globally, many of which will end up in yours or mine homes.

If you have goods that need transporting then why not appoint a freight forwarder to assist you? The experience and knowledge they hold is invaluable…..


Related Blogs

Shipping containers – One size doesn’t fit all

The rise of the Mega Ship: Does bigger always mean better?


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