History of shipping containers
In the past, the goods used to be shipped in the form of breakbulk. Simply put, people literally threw bags with potatoes, barrels of wine, or wooden boxes of various dimensions with guns onto a horse-drawn carriage or later onto a truck. Then they drove to the nearest train station, where they had to unload the load and load it into a railway wagon. After that, the train transported the goods to the nearest port, where the goods had to be reloaded onto a ship. After arriving at the destination port, the whole process was repeated in reverse order.
This system had a lot of downsides. Reloading unstandardized cargo of many dimensions was time and personnel consuming, carrying capacity (especially of the vessels) were far from being optimally utilized, the cargo was not sufficiently secured, which posed a high risk of loss or damage to the cargo, especially during sea storms. The risk of damage was all the greater because the goods were not sufficiently protected. The system also made work easier for thieves.
Loading of breakbulk cargo
As early as the end of the 18th century, the first smaller shipping containers with a metal-wooden structure began to appear. However, each transport company used different types of containers, and these were still not intermodal, so it was not possible to use them for transport by carriage or truck and also for transport by train or ship. Only the twentieth century and mostly the second half of it meant a significant step forward in the development of shipping containers.
During World War II, the United States Army began experimenting with container transport. They used that experience in 1948 when they developed the so-called Transporter – a standardized, all-metal, stackable container that could be loaded from a ship directly onto a truck and vice versa. Its dimensions were 8 ‘6″ in length, 6’ 3″ in width and 6’10” in height.t. The Transporter proved itself during the Korean War (1950-1953) – thanks to it, the army was able to significantly speed up the supply of its troops and increase the safety of transported goods. Towards the end of the Korean War, the U.S. Army slightly improved the Transporters, creating the so-called CONEX (CONtainer EXpress) boxes. By 1967, about halfway through the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was using more than two hundred thousand Conexes.
Conex box hoisted onto a US army truck
The successes in logistics achieved by the U.S. Army were noticed by shipping companies around the world, which began to come up with their own intermodal container solutions. Malcom McLean, the owner of the McLean Trucking Company, played an important role. In 1955, he began working with mechanical engineer and inventor Keith Tantlinger to develop a modern intermodal container. The result was an 8ft high, 8ft wide, and 10ft long container constructed from 0.098in thick corrugated steel with a twist-lock mechanism at all four upper corners for easy securing and lifting by crane. McLean also bought two U.S. Army tankers used in World War II and had them rebuilt to carry these containers. After the successful inaugural voyage of the first of them in 1957, Tantlinger persuaded McLean to make the container design freely available, paving the way for the international standardization of intermodal containers.
Malcom McLean at Port Newark, 1957
After a series of discussions and compromises between international carriers and American and European rail and road carriers, they finally agreed on standardized dimensions and shape, which were subsequently recorded in 1968 in ISO 668. In this standard, the dimensions are already the same as we know them today.
Containerization represents an essential milestone in the history of international transport, which, together with other factors, is behind the massive development of international trade. Today, the portion of goods transported in standardized, intermodal containers is estimated at 90%.
This article is the first in a three-part miniseries about sea containers. In the second article, we will introduce the different types of containers and what they were used for.