The History of Shipping Containers

Updated on July 9, 2019
Alexander Okelo profile image

Alexander is a professional engineer who specializes in the construction of affordable houses and structures using recycled materials.

Before Containerization

Before shipping containers or intermodal services came to be, things were pretty basic. Goods were transported manually as break bulk cargo. This means cars transported goods from the factory and taken to the warehouse or port in shifts until all the cargo has been transported.

Once at their destination, they would be offloaded and stored at the port awaiting a vessel to further transport them. Once the vessel arrived, they would be taken to the side of the ship by the workers and packed ready for the journey.

A major part of transportation then was physical labor of picking and dropping by dockworkers and factory attendants, up till the 18th century. In 1766, James Brindley from England invented a box he named the "Starvationer". It was made with only 10 wooden containers.

He was to use it to transport coal from a quarry all the way to a canal in Manchester. That was the first ever existence of a container. Various activities went on from then through to the 20th century when more evolutions came to the site and more people started to embrace containers.

Bird's eye view of shipping containers
Bird's eye view of shipping containers

Into The 20th Century

Early 1917, in May, Benjamin Franklin Fitch created a new design for shipping containers called demountable bodies. He created this design in his home town in Cincinnati, Ohio in the US. While the new containers touched base, he started to serve them in railway tracks and stations using freight trucks.

By 1919, the number had skyrocketed to over 21 stations and 14 freight trucks. At the same time, many countries had started to adopt their own systems of containers, spreading to European countries.

After the First World War, the United Nations among other countries started to push ships to unite and have a standardized system. The system would include a standard shipping size and material

In 1947, the Transportation Corps developed the Transporter, a rigid, corrugated steel container with a 9,000 lb carrying capacity. This was to be emulated for shipping of goods. Specifications included:

  • 6 inches long.
  • 3 inches wide.
  • 10 inches high.
  • Double doors in one end.
  • Mounted skids.
  • Lifting rings.

From that model, a new era was to be born. In 1955, Malcolm McLean worked with engineer Keith Tantlinger to create a modern intermodal container. More rigid and versatile to be easily transported over the sea while carrying heavy loads.

The result was a better shaped and sized container made of corrugated steel and had a twist lock mechanism to secure the goods efficiently. With success in this new evolution, the two decided to sell the patent design to the Industry.

The Birth of Intermodal Containers

The Man Behind The Invention

When questioned about shipping containers, many will talk about Malcolm McLean. He was the lead inventor and instigator of these intermodal containers. He was born in 1914 in North Carolina, USA.

After school, he did jobs here and there to save up for a truck. As soon as he bought a second-hand truck, he started a transport business. By then it was in 1934. The transport industry then was very dependent on simple transportation modules like vehicles and trucks, unlike trains.

Soon, his business had become as profitable as it could be. So he bought four other trucks to expand the business. As he was working one day, he watched as dock workers would load and unload the cargo from shipping vessels. He then thought it would be a great opportunity for him to look for a way to aid the hard labor they went through.

From 1937 to about 1950, he remained in his transport business, he had scaled up to over 1,750 trucks and 37 transport terminals. He had really grown his business to the top five truck business in the USA. The business began having problems with cargo having weight restrictions and fees on the levy.

He saw this as a large problem for the business since his drivers always had to pay the fees which reduced the revenue. As he was finding a way to enhance the business and to avoid such issues, he remembered his encounter in 1937 in Jersey.

He realized that it was the time to act on his idea of creating standard sized trailers that would easily offload without much manual labor. He wanted to have a transport truck hub but that wasn't going to eliminate the issue on fees.

So he took up more drastic measures that he thought would not only profit him but the entire globe.

The Breakthrough

Once McLean had the idea to improve transportation issues for his truck business, he decided to actually place his idea into a reality. He sold his trucking business and decided to place all his efforts into the standardized shipping trailer business.

He took out a loan from the bank worth $42 million. $7 million from the total, he bought a shipping company called the Pan-Atlantic Company. The company was already quite established hence has its docking rights in many port cities.

He worked hand in hand with engineer Tantlinger to come up with plausible solutions to the containers. After much deliberation, they settled for a shipping container. It was to be built strong, standard, and with the rigidity of being stacked on top of each other.

He began with his creation, he bought an oil tanker called the Ideal X. He customized it to be able to adequately carry 58 variations of his designer containers and also hold over 15,000 tons of oil. With that, he began his first journey.

Container ship
Container ship

Realization of Intermodalism

McLean's innovation was going to save the industry of transportation more than anything else. As companies started accepting the patent, it created the name intermodalism.

Intermodalism had the concept that everything would work better and more efficient if it could be transported under the same container, with the same cargo, and under fewer interruptions like those seen previously.

In acceptance of this new era, the first trip commenced April 26, 1956. Lucky enough, it was successful. McLean had boarded 58 containers in a ship and sailed them across Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas.

Up till then, everything worked well. He then decided to modify the container even more so they didn't need to be opened while in transit. He created a method on trailerships where the containers could move from large trailers and placed in storage, a roll on and roll off system, but it was not well welcomed.

People saw large amounts of space that could potentially be wasted in the process. With that in mind, McLean modified his original design to allow for the containers themselves to be moved rather than the entire tanker. From there many countries adopted the system.

The shipping container industry started to grow rapidly at this point. So standard limitations were set up. In fact, four important ISOs International Organization for Standardization set up regulations as to how containerization was to go ahead globally.

  • January 1968: ISO 668 defined the terminology, dimensions, and ratings.
  • July 1968: R-790 defined the identification markings.
  • January 1970: R-1161 made recommendations about corner fittings.
  • October 1970: R-1897 set out the minimum internal dimensions of general purpose freight containers.

The standards were supposed to be observed by every nation that wanted to invest in the container business. This then brought a new wave of global trade and a unified industry.

What Happened In The 21st Century?

Fast forward to this day and age, as of 10 years ago, over 90 percent of cargo globally had embraced containerization. The rules and regulations stipulated by the ISO standards created a clearer path for the industry.

There's improved cargo security which has grown the trade industry allowing for more export and imports. Global trade has really grown with a new way in the economy. Economists state that the containers have been the driver time globalization more than any trade agreements done over the past 50 years.

All these are to be credited to the man of the century, McLean. He has enabled an average of 20 million shipping containers to make over 300 million trips in a year. If that isn't a revolution, what is then?

Cargo containers
Cargo containers


Intermodal containers have changed the transport industry in a huge way. With ports filling day in day out, and level of industrialization improving every day, it has grown to be very helpful in improving the profitability of the transportation industry.



© 2019 Alexander Okelo


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