The History Of Shipping Containers

Most of us can imagine the impact that has been made on the world by inventions like cars, aeroplanes, agricultural technology, and even food-delivery services. The history of shipping containers however, is a rather quiet force charging along in the background, modestly transforming the economy and the pace of globalisation.

You may have seen them whizzing past on trucks and bobbing along on ships, or perhaps you’ve dined beside a container cafe or even have someone living in one in your backyard.

Let’s have a look at the development and impact of these humble holders of life’s precious belongings.


Shipping Containers History

The History of Shipping Containers

What on earth did we do before the shipping container?

Food and other merchant goods have been traded and shipped overseas since the time of the Egyptians. However, without shipping containers, the process of packing and unpacking ships sometimes took more time than the actual travel at sea. The packing process was the biggest time-wasting culprit as goods had to be loaded individually by hand.

The method was called “break-bulk” shipping and is rarely used today for good reason. Packers utilized ropes, sacks, pallets etc. to aid in carrying and securing items into various compartments on ships. These methods can still be used to prevent movement within a shipping container, however they don’t need to be dismantled and redone during each un-load and reload.

So basically, it isn’t new for humans to carry things across the world to trade in far-away lands, we just aren’t doing it by tedious, brute, man-power anymore.

Shipping Containers History

So who came up with those ingenious containers anyway?

Unlike creators such as Steve Jobs and Alexander Graham Bell (you know, the inventor of the  light bulb), the first guy to dream-up the shipping container is largely unrecognised. Sure, most people don’t tend to see their most-used daily items as shipping container related, but how do those imported goods get to us anyway?

Malcolm McClean is the answer. Previous owner of a trucking company, McClean just couldn’t accept the tedious, expensive hours wasted on the loading process. With great foresight, he sold his truck company in 1955 in place for an established shipping company. He actualised his visions of the container and rigged his new boat to stack 58 of them!

The tanker, known as the Ideal X, shipped 15,000 tonnes of precious petroleum to Houston, USA from Port Newark. Before they even docked, he had orders coming in for future shipments. His clever modification of the ship that allowed for such extensive stacking was the beginning of what is now known as “intermodalism”, and has done nothing short of changing the transport economy.

Shipping Containers History

How did the world respond?

For the most part, this new and efficient method of transporting goods was widely and voraciously devoured. The US government was a particularly enthusiastic customer during the Vietnam war, as military goods could be easily transported on a smaller budget. This urgent demand eventually led to the call for standardisation of containers sizes and ship fittings that allowed for a more uniform communication between ports and boats on all ends of the transaction.

By 1970, McClean had let go of his corner-post patent and agreements were formed on dimensions, identification terms, and shipping methods. The original 33 foot containers became the 20 and 40 foot containers that we use today.

Shipping Containers History

So far, so good right? Well, not everyone was pleased with this ultra-convenient invention. In fact, some found it to be too convenient, rendering old methods obsolete.

The old methods we’re talking about here is that good old man-power. The many hands needed to complete the earlier break-bulk method were now rendered slow, inefficient, and far too expensive. 1970’s Union workers organised a strike, but much to their dismay, many were offered severance, and the container market continued to bloom.


Only a decade after the Ideal X sailed, cargo ships were transporting over 200 containers per ship, internationally. Quickly, the industry began booming. Many more vessels were being built with ever-growing capacity for stacking containers.

By the mid 1980’s, over 4 million containers were transporting goods around the world, first in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America, and soon after in the Middle East and Africa.

Shipping Containers History

From 1956 to now, the per ton cost for shipping cargo has dropped from $5.86 to $0.16, due almost entirely to McClean’s revolutionary invention. The rate of loading cargo has increased more than 30-fold and more than 90% of the world’s countries are containerised.

Today, it costs less than two and a half cents to ship a t-shirt 3,000 miles across the ocean. In fact, writers for The Economist figure the impact of containers on globalisation is more than that of all free-trade agreements over the last half-century. Containerisation is correlated with a 790% increase in bilateral trade over the first 20 years in industrialised countries. Yep, we’re talking about the sole impact of big metal boxes riding on trucks and boats.

What does the humble shipping container provide the contemporary citizen?

Interested or not in international trade agreements and impacts on globalisation, the history of the shipping container plays a role in nearly every human’s life. According to writers at The Atlantic, unless you strictly buy locally and grow your own food, 90% of everything you eat, wear, and use every day was likely shipped in one of these metal contraptions.

The impact on the environment, in terms of greenhouse gases also, rates much cleaner than transport via trucks and planes. During an average year a single shipping container will travel farther than the distance to the moon! Not only do they put in their miles, the largest vessel can stack enough containers to hold almost 7.5 million bananas.

Shipping Containers History

Today, containers are used for so much more than transportation of goods. We use them for workshops, swimming pools, restaurants, offices, and even tiny homes.

So next time you’re packing up your container for a move, or opening your pop-up container restaurant, you can reflect back on the radical impact of these humble metal boxes on trade and globalisation. Shipping containers have, quite literally, changed the world.

Shipping Containers History