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Container history

Containers are used very widely but how did it all start and why are there so many around?

Broadly the history of containers can be divided into three phases

  • their invention and development in the US in the 1950s
  • the containerisation of world trade, which effectively took place in the 1970s
  • the growth in scale of container use with globalisation and the export-driven industrialisation of China in the 1990s and beyond.

The idea of some sort of “inter-modal” transport system, so that one transport unit could be used to carry goods on different forms of carrier, emerged from the US railroads in the 1950s. Motor vehicles had been carried on flatcars in the Midwest of the USA and increasingly flatcar services were used to “piggy-back” freight trailers on railways. This growing trend occurred at the same time as some shipping lines were experimenting with carrying containers, such as those going between Seattle and Alaska. In 1956 Malcolm McLean sailed a ship to Houston from Newark with over 50 containers on a converted tanker ship. The idea of goods moving from one form of transport to another without the container being opened was novel and was to revolutionise world trade.

In the 1970s the containerisation of world trade began in earnest with the advantages it gave of lower handing costs (dockers were replaced by cranes), and more security for goods as contents of containers could not be seen and their doors could be locked and sealed. Nowadays about 90% of non-bulk cargoes are transported in shipping containers.

The Chinese manufacturing boom which gathered momentum in the 1990s produced a massive boost to the numbers of containers being used, and the Chinese and South Koreans took on most of the world’s container manufacture. This growth went with the development of massive container ships that can carry as many as 11,000 TEU (20ft equivalent units) such as the “Emma Mearsk” which is ¼ mile long and was launched in 2006. The Mearsk Company owns the largest fleet of container ships in the world by some margin.

The volumes of freight now travelling by container are enormous. Approximately 20 million containers make 200 million trips per year and most manufactured goods will have spent some of their time in a container.