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Shipping Containers: A Short History

Because shipping containers are now so common-place, we take them for granted in today’s society. But did you know that just 60 years ago we had no shipping containers?

Let’s look at the history of shipping containers- what we used before them, who invented them and, the impact they have had on globalization.

Before We had Shipping Containers

For centuries the human race has journeyed across the seas transporting themselves and products to places the likes of which their own country had never seen before.

How did they transport their goods around the world? They shipped them, of course. However, without any regulation it was a slow and problematic practice.

Goods would be stored at a shipping warehouse until a vessel was available. When an empty ship arrived these goods would be shipped from the warehouse to the side of the docked ship. The products would usually be loaded into sacks, bales, crates and barrels, and then human laborers would load them onto the boat. As you can imagine this would be a very labor intensive procedure. This process was known as break bulk cargo, and a normal ship would have around 200,000 pieces of cargo on-board.

Towards the later part of the second industrial revolution (early 1900’s), this lack of regulation was becoming a problem, especially when you consider how popular trains had become. Transporting cargo from ships to trains was tremendously slow and caused delays and logjams within many ports. Larger ships would take around a week to unload then re-load This was the only way to transport goods and for centuries this process remained unchanged.

And Along Came Malcom

There was a great need for a consistent method of transporting goods, but for this to be grasped a whole host of industries needed aligning, such as: ships, trains, trucks and ports. As you can imagine, it would require a lot of effort and coaxing to make such a feat possible.

And then, along came Malcom McLean. Born in 1914, Malcom McLean grew up on a farm in North Carolina. After completing his schooling in 1931, he worked for several years to save up enough money to purchase a second-hand truck. In 1934, with his new purchase, he launched his transportation business. McLean’s business quickly grew and had five trucks. During a regular delivery of cotton bales in 1937 from North Carolina to New Jersey, McLean observed stevedores (people employed at a dock to load and unload cargo from ships) which took hours on hours, and he considered what a waste of time and money this was.

He then had the idea of creating a standard sized trailer which could be loaded onto boats in the volume of not one or two, like with his trucks, but in hundreds. He visualized modernizing his transportation business by removing most of his trucks and using boats to transport the goods to trucking hubs.

Committed to the idea of creating a standardized shipping container, McLean sold his trucking business and in 1955 he took out a bank loan to purchase an already established shipping company: Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, SeaLand Industries.

Today, around 90% of every purchased item is shipped inside a container, And there are more than 17 million shipping containers in the world.

 

 

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