Shipping Containers


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They’re just a big metal box, but they’ve revolutionized the transportation world in the last decades, enabling global trade at unimaginable levels and changing all of our lives.  The story of the invention of the shipping container is an unheralded part of transportation history.

In the old days, freighters carrying cargo overseas loaded and unloaded pallets or bails of cargo, one at a time.  I witnessed this myself as a child when my father, a real fan of the seas, took me on cargo ships as a passenger on trips from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean.

At each port the ship would dock and a swarm of dock workers would clamber aboard, open the hatches and descend into the cargo hold, loading single crane loads, one at time.  Then they’d load new cargo repeating the pattern in reverse.

Though these were small freighters it could take a day or two in port to finish the process, an incredible waste of time and costly labor.

In 1952 American trucking magnate Malcolm Mclean thought there must be a better system, so he came up with the idea of a metal shipping container which could be loaded at a factory, carried to ports on his trucks, loaded onto vessels and sent on their way.

The container would safeguard the contents, be easier to load and unload and save time for ships in port.  In 1956 he bought two war-surplus oil tankers and converted them to carry his boxes.  By 1959 customized cranes had been developed to expedite their handling.  And in 1962 the world’s first container port opened at Port Elizabeth, NJ.  The system was a huge success.

While the old system of stevedores cost shippers almost $6 a ton to load and unload, the container system cost sixteen cents a ton.  When a longshoreman’s union leader was asked what he thought of McLean’s container ships he’s quoted as saying “I’d like to sink that son of a bitch”.

Not only was port time cut, but the off-loaded shipping containers could be put on a chassis and hauled by truck (you see them on I-95 every day) or loaded on special rail cars and moved by train.  Some containers were also outfitted with refrigeration units to keep perishable cargos fresh, bringing new fruits and vegetables to our food markets.

In the late 60’s international standards were set for containers’ dimensions, the most common being 53 feet in length with up to 3000 cubic feet capacity and a maximum weight of 30 tons.  A box that size can hold a lot of cell phones, fresh bananas or textiles.

By 1982 McLean’s dream of saving time and money by standardizing shipping put him on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans with a net worth of $400 million.  But a few years later he declared bankruptcy owing $1.3 billion after he gambled on rising oil prices which never materialized.

Today megaships capable of handling over 10,000 shipping containers are the largest vessels afloat carrying cargoes around the world.  But even before the COVID-19 pandemic sank the freight industry, the US’s imbalance of imports to exports left American ports with thousands of empty containers.  Drive on the NJ Turnpike past Newark Airport and you’ll see them towering to the east of the highway.

Because they’re relatively cheap and still sturdy, old shipping containers are now being repurposed for everything from housing to cafes.  Some have even been converted into glass-sided swimming pools.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.