The History of the Shipping Container

The History of the Shipping Container


5 minute read | By Denholm Good Logistics

Last updated: January 15, 2024 | Published: June 28, 2019


Shipping containers are everywhere, whether you spot a container ship carrying hundreds of these metal boxes along the coast or your favourite pop-up shop is inside one, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the object that is commonplace in today’s world. However, given how much containers are taken for granted, we thought it’d be interesting to look into the history of the trusty shipping container to find out when it all began (and what on earth we did before it was invented!).

Before Container Shipping

Humans have been shipping goods across the seas for thousands of years. As people explored the world, they brought goods back with them to trade that had never been seen before, such as materials, jewels and food. However, unlike today, when goods are safely packaged and loaded into secure shipping containers on gigantic container ships, the shipping process back then wasn’t straightforward. Instead, it was difficult, time-consuming and labour intensive. Loading and unloading goods individually, be it in a sack, wooden box or barrel was no easy task as dockworkers manually manoeuvred cargo into whatever space they could find. As well as being slow and cumbersome, the risk of theft or damage was much higher than it is today.

With the advent of train transport, the slow process of transferring cargo from trains to ships and vice versa was causing massive delays at ports with some vessels taking up to a week to unload and reload – some ships would spend more time in port than at sea! The industry was crying out for a better way of moving goods, and the lack of a standard process had become a real issue.

Despite shippers using the logical way of moving and handling goods in some kind of box, the idea of using boxes on a much larger scale didn’t emerge until the latter half of the 20th century.

The Invention of the Container

It was in 1955 that a trucking entrepreneur, Malcom P McLean, from North Carolina, USA, purchased a steamship company (which he called SeaLand) intending to transport whole truck trailers with their freight still inside. He figured it would be a lot simpler and speedier to have one standard container that could be lifted from a vehicle straight on to a ship without having to unload and reload the goods inside.

While we take intermodalism for granted today, it was Malcom that realised that effectiveness could be tremendously improved through an arrangement of “intermodalism”, in which a standard container, with the same load, could be transported without interruption between ships, trucks and trains. This would simplify the entire logistics process and, in the long run, implementing this idea revolutionised freight transportation and international trade throughout the following 50 years.

International Standards

Buyers and sellers of goods quickly saw the potential of container shipping, and only six years later in 1961, the international standards for container size were agreed – making way  for container ships to be used to transport goods between countries. Thanks to these standards, we now have the 20-foot and 40-foot shipping containers you’ll no doubt have seen plenty of times before, on lorries, trains and ships.

It was in April 1966 that SeaLand’s first container ship carrying 236 containers departed the US to the Netherlands. Following this initial success, the container shipping industry expanded rapidly, and by 1968, container ships were capable of carrying 1,000 20-foot shipping containers.

Continual Innovation

Although the shipping container could be considered a relatively recent invention, its impact on the shipping and logistics industries as well as global trade has been tremendous. Since 1955, Malcom’s idea for a standard container remains the same; however, the technologies now developed to transport these containers are continually evolving.

To date, the largest container ship is the OOCL Hong Kong, which has a carrying capacity of 21,413 Twenty-Foot Containers! At 399.87 metres, long and 58.8 metres wide, it is the largest container ship ever built. Inevitably, technology has been developed to help handle such enormous vessels. For example, container cranes at Maasvlakte 2 in the port of Rotterdam are now un-staffed and almost entirely automated – quite a different scene to the manual work involved all those years ago.

There’s no doubt that Malcom revolutionised the maritime industry in the 20th century – and his vision is still very much in practice today. So much so, that in the year 2000, Malcom McLean was awarded “Man Of The Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

Not just for Shipping

When they come to the end of their time at sea, there are lots of ways a shipping container can be given a brand new lease of life and continue being useful for years to come. Take a look at our article “10 Amazing and Innovative ways to use a Shipping Container” to see some surprisingly creative ways to use a shipping container – we’re sure you’ll be inspired!

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