The History of Shipping Containers


Many people don’t think about shipping containers that carry goods to storefronts outside the logistics industry. It can be hard to imagine how difficult it once was to move freight across the globe before the invention of the standard shipping container. Thankfully, many innovations continue to move the transportation and logistics industry forward and make international trade easy.

What is a Standard Shipping Container?

A standard shipping container is a widely used and indispensable vessel made from steel to transport goods. Although it may not seem groundbreaking, most shipping containers have standardized dimensions, so it’s easy to load and unload goods across all transport modes. However, there’s a long history behind the standard shipping container, and, of course, an outstanding person.

The First Use of Shipping Containers

Before the first shipping containers, freight was handled manually as break-bulk cargo. Goods traveled via pick-ups from the factory to vessels, warehouses, boats, and other destinations. This method required excess handling, which caused delays, increased costs, wasted time, and proved unreliable as shipping frequency increased.

Companies first utilized shipping containers for combined rail and horse-drawn transport in Britain at the end of the 18th century. By the 1830s, railroads were carrying containers suitable for other transport modes. The U.S. Army used standard-sized small containers during WWII, which helped speed up the distribution of supplies.

The Invention of the Standard Shipping Container

Malcolm McLean invented and patented the first standard shipping container in the USA in 1956. Although he wasn’t an ocean shipper, he owned the largest trucking company in the country at the time. Gradually, McLean came up with how to make intermodal transportation seamless and efficient.

When McLean started his trucking company, the standard practice was to load and unload cargo in odd-sized wooden cases. As he watched dock loaders move and transfer freight, he was amazed by how inefficient this method was. McLean knew that trucking carriers and shipping companies would gain from a standardized, intermodal cargo transfer process.

Knowing it was time to change the logistics industry, McLean purchased Pan Atlantic Tanker Company with all its shipping assets. With it, he started experimenting with better loading and unloading trucks. Eventually, McLean finally came up with the standard shipping container. It’s robust, theft resistant, reliable, and easy to transfer.

In April 1956, the first container ship, the Ideal X, departed from Port Newark and successfully made its route to Houston.

Standard containers made a true revolution in freight transportation and changed international trade in a variety of ways, including:

  • Increased safety: Cargo began traveling sealed and safe in shipping containers, reducing pilfering and damage on all conveyance stages.
  • Reduced manual labor: Containers reduced the work required for loading and unloading, dramatically changing the character of port cities worldwide. Cranes substituted workforce, and ports evolved to accommodate larger ships and loading facilities.
  • Increased efficiency: Innovation in the shipping process reduced the expense of international trade and increased its speed by significantly shortening shipping time.

Less than 35 years after McLean’s invention, container shipping transported approximately 90% of the world’s cargo. Containerization has shaped our world; it provides an opportunity for the fast and safe delivery of millions of goods daily. Undoubtedly, this invention influenced globalization and the world economy.

How Standard Shipping Containers Have Evolved

From 1956 to today, the standard shipping container has evolved in various ways to meet the expectations of the 21st century. Everyone wants an efficient supply chain, and modern-day shipping containers allow that. Here, we’ve highlighted the most prominent ways the standard shipping container has evolved.

Different types of shipping containers

Standardization is an essential feature of the shipping container, but the design is equally important. Today, shipping containers accommodate all kinds of freight, including perishable produce and dry goods. Further examples of unique products containers are built to carry include:

  • Car containers made it possible to transport multiple cars together in a safe manner.
  • Refrigerated containers included refrigeration systems and allowed for transporting temperature-sensitive items, such as pharmaceutical products and food.
  • Tunnel containers consisted of two sets of doors on either side of the container. Having two doors allows for a faster loading and unloading process. Most shippers use these containers when they must unload and reload their freight more than once.

Improved cargo security

No one wants to deal with stolen freight, so today’s shipping containers are built to prevent theft. Standard shipping containers are one of the most secure ways to ship your cargo, with lockability added thanks to Malcolm McLean. Shipping containers have different locks, and some even have wireless security systems.

Eco-friendly shipping

A big challenge for the shipping industry is to overcome different carbon challenges. However, the standard shipping container is one of the cleaner inventions in the shipping industry. The most crucial factor is that the containers are reusable and can last for years transporting hundreds of shipments.

Ship with PLS Logistics Services

If you’re looking for reliable shipping containers and an even more reliable company to carry your freight, look no further than PLS Logistics Services. We manage more than 1 million loads annually through all significant freight modes. Efficiency is our utmost priority, so get a quote with us today to expedite all your shipping needs!

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