Shipping Container History: How a Simple Box Revolutionized the Shipping Industry

The first shipping container journey began in 1956 in New Jersey. 58 containers were stowed on the Ideal-X tanker before it arrived in Houston five days later.

From these small beginnings, shipping containers are now used to transport more than $4 trillion worth of goods every year. Truck driver Malcom McLean essentially invented shipping containers. So how did McLean make the leap from trucks to ships? Read on to learn more about shipping container history.

An Idea Ahead of Its Time

In the early 1950s, U.S. roads suffered from heavy congestion. With no interstate highways, trucking companies lost money as their drivers got stuck in jams. McLean dreamed of a water-based transport system. Trucks would drive onto ships to deposit their trailers. Then the ships would carry the cargo to their destination.

It was a far cry from shipping reality. Ships at that time carried cargo in separate containers like barrels or crates. It took time and manpower to move each item into a warehouse for storage and then into the ship’s hold. Reversing the process at the other end made shipping incredibly expensive. McLean’s idea of driving trucks directly on board would save time and lower costs.

The Idea Hits a Snag

The problem with McLean’s vision is the space trailers would take up on board. That space couldn’t be used for cargo so it would cancel out any savings. McLean came up with a new solution. Why not take the wheels and chassis off the trailers and put the containers on the ship?

This meant cranes would be needed to load the ships. But it also meant the containers could be stacked. The more containers a ship had, the less each one cost to carry.

Federal regulations meant McLean couldn’t buy ships using his trucking company. So he sold his trucking company and bought a shipping line to test his new idea. He called it Sea-Land Service. The company focused on the coasts along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. They also established lines to Puerto Rico and one to California.

Larger Shipper Containers Take Off

Sea-Land’s success prompted other companies to follow suit. At the time, everyone used their own containers, which meant goods could only be carried by specific ship lines in their containers. Companies could also only ship to ports served by specific lines.

Eventually, the International Organization for Standardization stepped in to standardize the containers. Any ship could carry any container, and any crane could handle them at any port. Many believed container shipping wouldn’t be possible across the Pacific. But McLean proved them wrong in 1967 when he used containers to supply troops in Vietnam.

Since they deposited their cargo in Vietnam, they were empty on the return trip. That paved the way for Japan to export consumer goods in these same containers. We still enjoy this shipping process now to send goods around the world.

That’s a Potted Shipping Container History

McLean died in 2001 but his tremendous legacy lives on. While he endured failures in his career, he still created an ingenious method for shipping goods around the world. This innovation changed how we trade. It influenced how ports are run, where companies build factories, and the way trade operates.The next chapter in this shipping container history is already underway. People now use containers for offices, shelters, and even homes. Who knows where shipping containers will end up next?

Have you got any questions about shipping containers? Send them our way and we’ll be happy to help.

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