While most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them, it is almost impossible to imagine the world – and its global market place – without shipping containers. Picture a port, a train depot, even a warehouse, and you are bound to picture shipping containers. It is easy to assume that they are an old staple of the shipping industry. The truth is that they have actually only been around since the 1950s, but in the years since they have become virtually indispensable.
Shipping Before Containers
Prior to the invention of the shipping container, anything that was shipped came in its own unique container. These included boxes, barrels, and bags of various shapes and sizes, each of which had to be manually arranged to fit as much on the ship as possible. This meant that loading ships was slow and hard work, and it didn’t make efficient use of the cargo space on the ships.
Malcom McLean was a trucker who in 1937 had the idea for the early container, a standardized container that could eventually become intermodal, utilized on both ships and trains. He would go on to purchase a steamship and a railroad terminal company so that he could experiment with container designs.
In the 50’s these containers gained popularity and the first ships that were designed to hold them both above and below deck were built. McLean designed an interlocking system so that the containers could be stacked together and then interlocked for safety and security. This, combined with the development of the gantry crane in 1959 made loading cargo onto ships much quicker and more efficient than it had ever been. By 1970, international standards for shipping containers began to take form and by 1979, 90% of all international shipping was being done in containers. During this period, McLean, working with the Southern Pacific Railroad, developed the first double-stack train car and the shipping container expanded inwards from the ports.
Over the years, container technology has continued to improves. Material changes make them lighter, stronger, and more durable than ever before. Technological improvements in other sectors – such as, security and computers – are being integrated into shipping container designs for expanded uses. Today, shipping containers are still used in 90% of global trade and have many other uses as well, and they will continue to as we move forward.
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