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A Short History of Shipping Containers

The humble shipping container has played a huge part in our lives with barely any consideration as to its importance by most people.  From fruit to machine parts, Lego to lumber, to the PC you're reading this on; be sure it arrived on these shores in a shipping container.

Amphorae from sunken trading vessels can be found on the Mediterranean seafloor

Shipping and trade have combined deep into antiquity.  Whether it was  reed-boats moving goods along the Nile or sailing boats from the middle east travelling to the fringes of northern Europe trading for tin to make bronze; ships and sales have been in unison. So, trade and shipping have been entwined for millennia, and that means the mode of transportation and packaging has been evolving all the while. Initially simple baskets were used, or greased rags to prevent sea salt deteriorating metals and, of course, the most common and well known in antiquity was the amphora used by the Greeks and the Romans and found all over the  Mediterranean and former areas of the respective empires.  But not everything can fit into an amphora or reed basket, so  how did the shipping container come into being?

Like much innovation it was the product of necessity - and some simple ingenuity.  Here at ParkerBrand we can certainly get on board with that! It took until the twentieth century for the solution to evolve. The world had changed a great deal of course,  and trade was well established between the Americas and Europe and had increased greatly between Asia and Europe.  The far-flung corners of the Earth were open to trade from New Zealand to Newfoundland.

This version was designed for deployment in Korea and was called a Conex box - a forerunner of the shipping container that changed the world.

As regrettable as it might be, it was war that pushed innovation, as is all too often the case.  In order to establish a strategic advantage,  the U.S army worked  at containerisation in order to move military hardware across the Atlantic and Pacific to service wars and post WWII strategic operations.  This maximised the load that US naval ships could carry and have prepared for deployment. The shipping containers we recognise were slowly coming in to being.

From Trucks to Big Bucks: McClean's Dream.

When it comes to shipping containers, there is only one name that really counts:  Malcolm McClean. He started a haulage firm in the state of North Carolina (USA) with one single solitary truck in 1935, this keen entrepreneur soon established a profitable business.  Like most true entrepreneurs Malcolm embraced every aspect of his business and as he drove the trucks personally for quite some time, it meant that he was very familiar with what was needed to improve his business.  These lessons were especially recalled even as he sat in the boardroom as his business grew.  He became so successful that he eventually bought freight ships and realised that he needed a standard way for goods to be loaded and uploaded from ships in order to decrease the time it took and as a consequence increase profit. A canny lad, then!

McClean oversees his world changing innovation

Central to his thinking was one key aspect; that he should consider NOT what he wanted to transport, in terms of the goods themselves, but in how they could be contained.  It was clear to him what was required. The container that he designed could be moved from a truck onto a ship and be stacked with ease and make maximum use of the space. While this was cause for celebration from his point of view, there were certainly others who were not especially pleased.

As it threatened their livelihood in general and certainly their numbers dockers and longshoremen were less than happy and threatened boycotts and industrial action. This early turbulence merely made McLean more resolute and focussed on his goal. Certainly an important and shrewd move was not to patent the shipping container in any way. He saw more value in backing the trailer companies (the Fruehauf trailer company in particular) to develop the containers and make this true innovation available to everyone in the industry, even allowing his direct competitors to embrace the new technology.

The situation with the dock workers settled and the Port authorities began to see that these new developments were the future, despite initially being highly sceptical across the board, as is often the way with technology that makes a sweeping change.

McClean continued to build his shipping company and its capabilities. His later ships could carry over 200 containers.  Eventually, the Port Authority in New York committed to spend $332 million by the 1960's  in order to build a dedicated container port based at Elizabeth, New Jersey.  In April, 1966, in his first trans-Atlantic sailing, his Sea-Land Service sent a ship from Port Elizabeth to Rotterdam, arriving four weeks faster than any prior ship when loading time was included in the calculation; the modern era of the shipping container was  born.




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