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The Complete History of Shipping Containers

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Shipping containers have a fascinating history. For many years, they have been used outside their original purpose of storing and moving cargo. But recently, companies have found that storage containers can be a cost-effective solution for their needs. There are no limits to what you can do with a container these days, from temporary offices to pop-up stores and coffee shops. However, this wasn’t always the case.

In this post, we explore the history of shipping containers and how they came to be used for other things, what purposes they are being used for, and why they are in such demand.

Shipping Container History: The Early Years

Before shipping containers existed, all cargo was loaded into crates, barrels, drums, boxes, and sacks and hand loaded onto cargo ships for transport across the ocean. This method of transportation is called bulk-break shipping. Also known as general cargo, it refers to items that are loaded onto a ship in individually counted units. Since everything was packed separately, it took a lot of time to load and unload each vessel – sometimes as long as three weeks! (Today’s modern shipping containers can be loaded and unloaded in less than a day.)

In the 1930s, the Bureau International des Containers set the first international standard for shipping containers. The bureau established standards for transport between European countries. At the time, there were no standards for American containers. These early containers were not stackable. In 1932, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in Enola, Penn., opened the first container terminal in the world.

shipping container history
Shipping containers play a crucial role in the modern supply chain. Here’s their complete history.

Shipping Containers in the Korean War

The history of shipping containers picks up around the middle of the 20th Century. The use of steel shipping containers begins in the late 1940s. During this time, the U.S. military and commercial companies started to build their own containers. In 1948, the U.S. Army introduced the Transporter, a steel container 8 feet 6 inches long, 6 feet 3 inches wide, and 6 feet 10 inches high with double doors on one end. It was mounted on skids with rings on each corner for lifting. The Army used these containers to transport various items during the Korean War (1950-1953).

As the war continued, the Transporter evolved into the Container Express (or Conex) box, similar in size and capacity but made modularly and could be stacked three high. The innovative design of the Conex box allowed items to be better protected from natural elements. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. military used between 100,000 and 200,000 Conex boxes each year. The containers contributed significantly to the globalization of commerce by reducing the cost of shipping items anywhere in the world.

Malcom McLean and SeaLand

In the 1950s, trucking magnate Malcom McLean purchased Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, intending to start a container shipping business, later called SeaLand. McLean worked closely with engineer Keith Tantlinger to create the SeaLand container that was 35 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet 6 inches tall. Each container had eight corner castings for stacking loads. The length was determined by the maximum size of trailers allowed on Pennsylvania highways. During this time, Tantlinger created the twist lock for connecting and securing each container. He also developed the first automatic spreaders to lift and move them. Today, both McLean and Tantlinger are considered innovators in the history of shipping containers.

The Ideal X and Vietnam

The modern shipping container was developed in the 1950s when sizes became standard. It made the shipping process modular, simpler to manage, and easier to schedule for transport. In 1955, McLean turned a World War II tanker vessel into the first commercial container ship. Known as Ideal X, the boat could carry 58 containers during a single trip.

While McLean utilized the Ideal X on the Eastern Seaboard, an enterprise on the West Coast – Matson, Inc. – began transporting containers between California and Hawaii. Because of California’s different traffic codes, Matson’s containers were limited to 24 feet in length.

In the late 1960s, McLean began shipping containers to South Vietnam for the U.S. military as the Vietnam conflict escalated.

Shipping Container History: Modern ISO Standards

The International Maritime Organization set the first ISO standards for containers in the late 1960s. This is an important time in the history of shipping containers. The decree set better standards for the loading, transporting, and unloading of goods in ports throughout the world.

A 1972 edict set by the Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Organization said that every international container must have a Convention for Safe Containers (CSC) safety approval plate that lists important information – like size, weight, age, and registration number.

Explore the history of shipping containers
Today, shipping containers are used as originally intended but also modified for more creative uses.

Shipping Containers in the 21st Century

Today, the rich history of shipping containers continues, but little has changed. Standard containers still measure 8 feet wide by 8 feet 6 inches tall. High-cube containers are an extra foot taller, at 9 feet 6 inches. Approximately 90% of containers in use today are either 20 feet or 40 feet in length. In the U.S. and Canada, they can be slightly longer – either 45 feet, 48 feet, or 53 feet. Current rules allow them to be stacked 10 or 11 high.

Some vessels no longer stack containers above deck and maximize their capacity by loading containers from the bottom of the hull. This way, you can stack them 21 high. To do this, heavier ones must be on the bottom of the stack to stabilize the ships and prevent damage to those that weigh less.

Nearly 90 percent of the world’s containers are made in China. By 2014, there were more than 36 million containers in the global fleet. The global market for container homes is expected to reach over $73 million by 2025, thanks to the quickness of building, ease of access, and lower building costs. Forty-foot containers have become the standard, but 20-foot units are often used for moving heavier cargo or for helping stabilize a ship. In today’s market, there are a few different types of container grades available, from one-trip containers (that make a single trip overseas) to as-is containers that can be used for 10 years or more.

Using Shipping Containers For Other Things

For many years, containers have been used outside their original purpose of moving cargo. The most common use is expanding storage space, providing businesses extra room for inventory, equipment, tools, and more.

In the history of shipping containers, the idea of using them for alternative means has several origins. In 1962, the Insbrandtsen Company filed a patent for using them as expo booths. A few years later, in the 1970s, U.K. architect Nicholas Lacey wrote his college thesis on reusing them for housing.

It would lead to Philip C. Clark, who was the first person to patent shipping containers for housing purposes. In 1987, Clark filed for a U.S. patent for turning steel containers into livable buildings. Clark showed how Conex boxes could be used as a house, citing weight-bearing foundations and showing they were ideal for modular construction. Seven years later, Stewart Brand wrote a book called “How Buildings Learn.” In it, he talks about using containers to create office spaces.

Since 1995, Southwest Mobile Storage has been an industry leader in steel container sales, rentals and modifications. Our headquarters in Phoenix, Ariz., has a 90,000 sq ft indoor fabrication facility with more than 40 certified engineers, electricians, welders, painters and carpenters with more than 500 years of total experience.

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