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A Brief History of the Shipping Container

A Brief History of the Shipping Container

Investigate your surroundings. Perhaps you're eating a banana, drinking coffee, or sitting at your computer, taking a break from work to read this article. Those items, along with your smartphone, refrigerator, and virtually every other item in your home, were most likely loaded onto a large container in another country and shipped thousands of miles across the ocean by ship before arriving at your door.

Today, an estimated 90% of the world's goods are transported by sea, with 60% of that – including nearly all of your imported fruits, gadgets, and appliances – packed in large steel containers. The remainder consists primarily of commodities such as oil or grains. In total, approximately $14 trillion of the world's goods spend time inside a large metal box. In short, without the standardized container, the global supply chain on which society depends – and which I am researching – would not exist. A recent shortage of these containers is driving up prices and clogging supply chains for thousands of products around the world. The situation emphasizes the significance of the simple yet essential cargo containers, which resemble Lego blocks floating on the sea from a distance.

Prior to the container, trade

People have used various sizes of boxes, sacks, barrels, and containers to transport goods over long distances since the dawn of commerce. In 1600 B.C. Egypt, Phoenicians transported wood, fabrics, and glass in sacks via camel-drawn caravans to Arabia. Hundreds of years later, the Greeks used amphorae, ancient storage containers, to transport wine, olive oil, and grain on triremes that sailed the Mediterranean and neighboring seas to other ports in the region.

Even as trade advanced, the process of loading and unloading goods as they were transferred from one mode of transportation to another remained labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly, in part due to the fact that containers came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Containers from a ship, for example, had to be opened and repacked into a boxcar before being transferred to a smaller rail car. Different-sized packages also meant that space on a ship could not be efficiently utilized, as well as weight and balance issues for a vessel. Furthermore, goods were more likely to sustain damage from handling or theft as a result of exposure.

A commercial revolution

During World War II, the United States military began investigating the use of standardized small containers to more efficiently transport guns, bombs, and other materiel to the front lines.However, it wasn't until the 1950s that American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean realized that by standardizing the size of the containers used in global trade, loading and unloading of ships and trains could be at least partially mechanized, allowing for a seamless transition from one mode of transportation to another. This allows products to remain in their containers from the point of manufacture to delivery, resulting in lower labor and potential damage costs. McLean invented the standard cargo container in 1956, and it is still widely used today. He began with a length of 33 feet – which was soon increased to 35 feet – and dimensions of 8 feet wide and tall. The cost of loading and unloading a ship was significantly reduced by this system. Manually loading a ship cost $5.86 per ton in 1956; the standardized container reduced that cost to just 16 cents per ton. Because containers are made of durable steel and remain locked during transport, they make it much easier to protect cargo from the elements or thieves.

This breakthrough enabled the modern globalized world to exist. Containerized cargo increased from 102 million metric tons in 1980 to approximately 1.83 billion metric tons in 2017. The majority of container traffic travels across the Pacific Ocean or between Europe and Asia.

Ships grow in size

Standardization of container sizes has also resulted in an increase in ship size. The more containers that are loaded onto a ship, the more money a shipping company can make on each journey. In fact, the average size of a container ship has more than doubled in just the last 20 years. The largest ships on the water today are capable of transporting 24,000 containers, which is equivalent to the carrying capacity of a freight train 44 miles long. In other words, a ship called the Globe with a capacity of 19,100 20-foot containers could transport 156 million pairs of shoes, 300 million tablet computers, or 900 million cans of baked beans – if you're hungry.

The Ever Given, the ship that snarled Suez Canal traffic for nearly a week in March 2021, has a similar capacity of 20,000 containers. Consider this: the typical pre-pandemic cost of transporting a 20-foot container carrying more than 20 tons of cargo from Asia to Europe was roughly the same as an economy ticket to fly the same distance.

Standard containers ushered in a true revolution in freight transportation, altering international trade in a variety of ways:

  • Cargo was transported in a sealed and secure manner, which reduced pilfering and damage at all stages of transportation.
  • Containers have reduced the amount of labor required for loading and unloading and have dramatically altered the character of port cities around the world. Cranes have taken the place of humans, and ports have evolved to accommodate larger ships and loading facilities.
  • Innovation has reduced the cost of international trade while also increasing its speed by drastically reducing shipping time.By the end of the century, container shipping had transported roughly 90% of the world's cargo. Containerization has shaped the world we live in; it allows for the fast and safe delivery of millions of goods every day. Without a doubt, this invention had an impact on globalization and the global economy.

Source: The Maritime Executive