The History of Shipping Containers

What is a Shipping Container?

The history of the Shipping Container is more interesting than it might seem. To put it simply, a shipping container is a steel box that has standardised dimensions. Despite going unnoticed by many people, they are one of the most important inventions to date, simplifying the transport and logistics industry globally.

It is estimated that 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea, with 60% of those goods being transported in shipping containers. Everything from the food you eat, to the phones you use and the cars you drive have most likely spent time inside one of these nifty boxes.

Shipping containers are also referred to as Intermodal Containers as they can be used seamlessly between modes of transport: trucks, trains, and cargo ships, without the need to unload its contents between each stage. This requires less handling and speeds up the process, saving time and money.

History Of Shipping Containers Cargostore

On the left shows Malcolm McLean admiring his new invention!

The History of Shipping Containers

Before the inception of shipping containers, trading was more time consuming and labour intensive. For example, when goods had to be transported across both land and sea, contents would need to be unloaded a repacked when going from a large cargo ship to a smaller rail cart.

In the 1950’s, American Entrepreneur Malcolm McLean realised that by standardizing the size of containers, they could be transferred seamlessly between various modes of transport and the contents could sit tight in one box the entire journey. An added bonus of this is that the containers could be secured, making them easier to protect from thieves as well as the elements. The use of shipping containers dramatically cut the cost of loading and unloading ships, going from $5.86 per ton in 1956, to just 16 cents per ton.

Whilst the container dimensions have changed since the first iteration by Malcolm, the idea, and the benefits of using a shipping container remains the same.

Shipping Containers Today

It’s hard to know for certain, but it is estimated that there are anywhere from 23 to 38.5 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) ‘in-service’ containers, 14 to 23.3 million TEU ‘ex-service’ containers, and 6 to 10 million TEU brand new containers ready in factories. This number is expected to grow in line with the ever-expanding globalisation and trade.

Shipping Containers can have a lifespan of 10-15 years, or even longer depending on how they are maintained. After this they can be melted down and recycled, or even given a new lease of life by being turned into a shipping container home or office through container modifications.

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