The history of containers

Nowadays containers are taken for granted and they are part of nearly everyone’s life in one way or another, but at the beginning of the 1950s their current form didn’t even exist!

As it is the 60th anniversary of modern container transportation, we will shed some light onto the history of containers. Many think that shipping containers are the biggest individual factor that has contributed to globalization during the last 60 years. 

The prehistory of a container

Starvationer at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum in the 80s.
Photo: Jack Brady Archive Collection / Bugsworth Basin

The origin of containers goes all the way back to 1766. This is when James Brindley designed the Starvationer boat to transport coal between the coal mine areas in England. The boat had 10 coal container spots.

In 1795, Englishman Benjamin Outram invented the first ”container” for coal transportation, thus commencing container traffic. Horses pulled the containers from the mines along the rails and all the way to the canal, where they were transferred onto a barge. Once at the destination, they were once again unloaded from the barge and horses were used to take them to their final destination. Just like container traffic nowadays, only in a very primitive form!

Benjamin Outram’s Little Eaton Gangway,
rails in transportation use at the Derby channel in 1908.
Photo: Wikipedia /
”Illustrated History of the Railroads”

In the 1830s, coal was transported by train in some continents. One railroad car could fit four simple containers made out of wood, and these were then loaded onto horse carriages that could fit one container. 

In the 1840s they started using iron boxes in addition to wooden ones, and closed models began to emerge for highway and railroad transportation at the beginning of the 20th century. It was around this time, before World War II, that different primitive prototypes of shipping containers began to surface in different European countries. In 1927, they began to pack the baggage of the passengers on a luxury train between London and Paris into four containers.

The era before shipping containers

A train transporting coal in open containers in 1951
Photo: Ben Brooksbank/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

For centuries, people had been transporting cotton, food and other goods by sea. They were held at the warehouses in the port until a ship was available, and then manually loaded onto the ships in barrels, boxes and sacks. The process was heavy and it took a lot of time and workforce – as many as 20,000 individual packets needed to be loaded onto the ships. 

During the second industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the lack of transportation standards started to become a real problem, especially as trains became more common. Loading the goods from the ships to the trains could take up to a week, which caused crowding and delays in several ports. 

Standardization was not going to be easy, as several industry fields needed to be taken into account – terminals, trains, ships, cranes etc. 

Malcolm McLean

Malcolm McLean (1913–2001) from North Carolina graduated from high school in 1931, after which he worked for a couple of years in order to get the money to buy himself a used truck. In 1934 McLean set up his own transportation company, which soon had five trucks at its disposal.

Malcolm McLean Newark, New Jersey port in 1957.
Malcolm McLean: Maersk Flickr

Once in 1937, as he was transporting cotton, he saw dockworkers packing and unloading goods for several hours. He thought that this was a waste of both time and money. By 1950, the transportation business had grown to include 1,750 trucks and 37 transportation terminals, making it the fifth-largest in America in its field. 

The implementation of weight limitations and taxes on goods transportation began around this time, and getting fined was not at all uncommon for the McLean drivers. McLean remembered his ponderings from 1937 and had the idea of developing a trailer container with a standardized size that could be loaded onto ships by the hundreds. This would mean decommissioning most of these trucks and using ships to transport the goods into separate truck terminals in port cities, thus also receiving fewer fines. 

The beginning of shipping container traffic

Convinced by his new idea, McLean sold his truck business in 1955 and took out a loan that he used partially to buy the shipping company called Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, which already had docking rights at several eastern port cities included in the sights of McLean. In 1960, the name of the company was changed to Sealand Industries.

A container being loaded onto the Ideal X tanker.
Photo: Maersk website

McLean started testing different variations of containers, settling upon the primitive model that is known as a shipping container/storage container even today, although contrary to the modern 20′ and 40′ shipping containers; this one was 35′ (about 11m) long. It was a standardized, durable, stackable, easily loadable and lockable solution. This also called for designing a ship to transport the containers. McLean bought a couple of the T2 tankers from World War II to modify them in such a way that they were able to carry 58 containers and 15,000 tons of petroleum.

On April 26th in 1956, one of the tankers, Ideal X, left from New Jersey for Houston with its cargo. At first, it countered resistance and even mocking, but already before it even reached Houston, the company started receiving orders. This was partly also due to the fact that the containers were lockable and that McLean was able to offer transportation of goods for a price that was 25% cheaper than traditional transportation. 

After the successful maiden voyage of Ideal X, McLean ordered the Gateway City – the first ship in the world that had been designed for transporting containers. It made its maiden voyage from New Jersey to Miami in October 1957. The cargo was packed and unloaded by only two crews of dockworkers at an incredible speed of 30 tons an hour! 

In 1966, they already started transporting containers to Holland and Scotland, Vietnam and East Asia following suit the next year.

The standardization of the shipping container

The US government was looking for a more efficient way of transporting goods during the Vietnam War and it started calling for the standardization of containers. So far the measurements and corner pieces of the containers hadn’t been standardized, which had to be done in order to be able to stack the containers efficiently. A standard-sized container was also necessary for trains, truck and other equipment so that all equipment could be built to suit them.

Standard 20′ containers at the port of Oulu
Photo: MC Containers

Instead of the modern 20’ and 40’ containers, McLean used a 35’ container model and his competitor, Matson’s, used a 24′ model. McLean consented to publish his revolutionary corner piece patents that are an essential part of the functionality of shipping containers due to their strength and stackability. 

A couple of ISO standards were set to determine terminology, dimensions, classifications, identifiers and so on. Thanks to these standards we nowadays have the 20’ and 40’ containers, the 20’ container (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, or TEU) being the standard volume.

Exponential growth

There was only one thing preventing the generalization of containers – the port associations were furious, as there would no longer be a need for dockworkers. The employees of several associations went on strike at the beginning of the 1970s, disrupting the quick expansion of containers and shipping industry on the whole.

SeaLand transportation
Photo: SeaLand/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Due to the large economical savings, it was possible to pay a severance pay / strike compensation for the union workers, after which the container business really took off. As a result, Sealand Industries had 36 container ships, 27,000 containers and access to over 30 port cities by 1969. 

After this, McLean sold the company to Reynolds Tobacco Company, which was a familiar acquaintance from the time of the truck company, for 530 million dollars. Reynolds also ordered five SL-7 ships that were a huge leap forward compared to the Ideal X, and they are the fastest cargo ships in the world even today.

Interesting facts

  • In 1956, the loading of goods cost about $5.86 per ton, but after the entry of the containers, the cost was over 90% less – $0.16.
  • In 1966 there were container ports in about 1% of the countries, but by 1983 this number was about 90%. 
  • Before shipping containers, it was possible to load about 1.3 tons of goods onto a ship in an hour, after the introduction of containers this number was about 30 tons per hour. 
  • About 90% of all commercial goods are transported in containers. 
  • Nowadays there are over 17 million containers in the world and they make over 200 million trips a year. 
  • There are over 6,000 container ships in active use nowadays. 
  • In 2000, International Maritime Hall of Fame that celebrates the most remarkable operators in the maritime industry declared Malcolm McLean as “the man of the century”. 
  • Sealand Industries is nowadays a part of the Danish Maersk shipping company that is the largest operator in its field.

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