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Influential Inventions: Shipping Containers

Think back to the beginning of COVID-19. The pandemic hits. Stores close and governments tell you to stay inside; don’t go out unless you need to. You find yourself faced with a home lockdown that many are saying will last for weeks, maybe months. No way it will last for more than a year, right? 

Looking around, you take inventory of all the things you have in your house: food, clothes, toiletries, medicine, books, video games. This will surely get you through the couple of weeks this lockdown will last. No worries. 

Fast forward a week. Your groceries are running low because what else is there to do during a lockdown than binge TV while snacking on whatever is within reach. Plus, you need to find a great outfit to wear once everything opens back up, your goal of learning guitar finally met a period in your life where there’s enough time, you want to see what this air fryer craze is all about, and you need to buy some home workout equipment that you will definitely use. 

Luckily, the modern age has given us the miracle of online shopping. No need to go outside and risk exposure to COVID. All you need are a few taps of the keyboard, a couple clicks of the mouse, and voilà, all the products you could want ordered and on their way. Unluckily, checking your bank account balance is also just a couple of clicks away. But that can wait for another day.  

You spend the next couple of days waiting for your packages to arrive with the anticipation of a child on Christmas. And sure enough, a couple days later, those boxes appear on your front porch. You think nothing of the process of how they got to you, why a product from across the world only took days to arrive, or how these products from all over the world don’t take a heavier toll on your poor bank account. 

There was a time in history—in fact an overwhelming majority of history—where purchases of international products like this were not so convenient and cheap. 

Going all the way back to the early days of international trade, explorers, sailors, and merchants risked life and livelihood testing new boundaries, taming the waters of vast oceans, and traversing routes like the Silk Road to bring back goods from other parts of the world; goods that would be sold for more than a pretty penny. 

But even as recently as the start of the Industrial Revolution and even into the beginnings of the Digital Revolution, shipping goods across the world was no easy or cheap task. One simple invention changed the very nature of the commerce industry and allowed for hundreds of times of more goods to make their way around the world: the shipping container.


If international trade is a human body, then transport is this body’s veins; ships, trucks, and trains the blood cells; and the goods aboard, the oxygen that keeps this global body of trade alive. Until recently, these blood cells of trade and the goods they carried were, at best, a haphazard assortment of boxes, barrels, and crates, and at worst, an ineffective and dangerous medium of storage and transport. 

For goods to go from point A to point B, a variety of transport is necessary. And each method of transport can accommodate different means of storage. Ancient Egyptians would ship wood, fabrics, and glass to Arabia via sacks on the backs of camels. Ancient Greeks would use a storage container called an amphora, basically a large pot with two handles and a long neck, to transport wine, olive oil, and grain on ships between ports. 

Comparing these two modes of storage and transport, you can see how camels could not accommodate large jars full of liquid or grain well; or how sacks full of wood, glass, and fabrics could not be stored on a ship in a way that efficiently uses space, at least without damage to goods. 

For much of international trade’s history, storage and transport problems similar to these persisted. Goods would be loaded in crates, barrels, boxes, sacks, and any other type of storage container available or commonly used at the time. Loading these items from the carriages, trucks, animals, or trains onto the ships would often take weeks of labor to complete. 

And the same goes for the process at the tail end of the voyage. Dock workers would then unload the ships and pile the haphazardly stored goods into warehouses where they would wait to be loaded onto whatever method of land transport would take them to their destination. That is, unless they had to empty the crates, barrels, sacks, and boxes of their goods and reload them into storage containers more suited for land travel. 

In between the two destinations, storage space on the transport would be poorly utilized. Sacks, crates, and barrels would be arranged as best they could, but there is only so far of an extent to which you can arrange a sack and a barrel together to make optimal use of space. This would lead to fewer goods being transported and weight and balance problems occurring during transport.

All things considered, if you were to make the equivalent of an online purchase in the pre-shipping-container-era, your air fryer would only get to you several months later. And that’s hoping that there was no damage or theft that occurred along the way. 

Oh, did I forget to mention that? Since loading, unloading, and managing the logistics of randomly and sporadically packaged goods would take weeks on both ends, warehouses and ports full of goods would sit idle on docks and floors; plenty of time for theft, damage, or just plain time-induced wear and tear to take its toll on goods. 

It wasn’t until World War II that someone decided to look into a more standardized way of storage. That someone? The U.S. military. World War II spurred the minds of the U.S. military to come up with a better way of transporting guns, bombs, ammunition, rations, and other materials to the front lines. Who thought you’d have a world war to thank for getting that guitar you will definitely learn to play to you in just a week? 

Then along came Malcolm McLean. McLean was an entrepreneur in the 1950s U.S. who had the simple, but hugely influential idea to standardize the size of shipping containers, not just for sea transport, but also to meet the needs of land and rail transport. 

He already owned a trucking company and had experience with the frustrations of transport storage inefficiency. In the 1950s, McLean bought a steamship company so that he could put his idea into practice. That is when storage containers really set sail. 

How It Works

When McLean first patented his shipping container in the 1950s, his design had each box at 33-feet long and eight feet wide and tall. The length would soon be increased to 35 feet. The most commonly used size today is known as the “twenty-foot-equivalent unit,” or TEU. It measures eight-feet wide, nine-feet tall, and, you guessed it, twenty feet long. There are other sizes—forty-feet long, for example, or taller than nine feet—but the width stays constant at eight feet. 

The concept that makes these shipping containers so effective is surprisingly complex. To understand it requires an advanced knowledge of mathematics and physics that would confuse even experienced academics… I had you there for a minute. The concept is actually painfully simple. 

The uniform size of the containers, unlike the mismatch, haphazard dimensions of the myriad of storage methods before, could be loaded on ships more easily while taking advantage of the ship’s space better. After all, two rectangles can be stacked together much more efficiently than irregularly shaped barrels and sacks that can hold a fraction of the cargo. These containers could be loaded onto ships much like Legos, stacked neatly on top and next to each other. 

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the storage container was its translatability across any mode of transport. From massive shipping vessels piled high with thousands of them, to trains with containers linked together for miles, to semi-trucks hauling a single container; the process of unloading containers and loading them onto the next form of transport changed from weeks of manual labor to mere minutes of a crane lifting it up and setting it down. No unpacking necessary since the shipping container fits all three modes of transport. 

One invention made just for McLean’s new containers, known as the twist lock, improved upon something equally simple as a standard-sized box: a corner. As basic geometry will tell you, any cube has eight corners. Same goes for the standard shipping container. What the twist lock did was create a latch to put on each corner and a device that could fasten on these latches. 

This invention allowed many containers to be stacked on each other aboard ships, to be fastened to train cars or the beds of semi-trucks, and to be easily picked up and moved around by cranes. 

To make this simple idea work, though, McLean had to undergo some complex business maneuvering. In the beginning, the Interstate Commerce Commission would not allow a single person to own both a trucking and a shipping company. So, McLean had to sell his trucking company and reinvest the capital, along with a hefty loan of $500 million, into making this idea the new normal. 

The next obstacle he faced was one of practicality. Ships, trucks, and ports had to be redesigned to accommodate McLean’s containers. Enter another invention: a modified trailer chassis that trucks could use to accommodate the containers. McLean also convinced the Port Authority of New York to build a port in New Jersey, next to Port Newark, designed to handle his containers. This port became the example that countless other container-ready ports built in the future would follow. 

One of the biggest obstacles McLean had to overcome was the backlash from port workers. Since the containers cut down on the manual labor needed for  loading and unloading at ports, longshoremen went on strike to save their jobs. It nearly drove McLean’s newly founded Sea-Land company to bankruptcy, but loans helped to keep the company afloat. 

Then the government stepped in and gave Sea-Land a big boost during the Vietnam War. When the military started experiencing backups at ports in South Vietnam in 1967, the U.S. government put a large order in for McLean’s standard shipping containers to help unclog the mess. 

Shortly after, McLean decided to make his container available for use on a royalty-free lease basis to the International Organization for Standardization.  

Now, modern shipping more resembles the following scenario: those dumbbells you ordered that definitely won’t gather dust next to the TV are loaded into a shipping container at the warehouse in which they were manufactured. That container is transferred onto a train to make the rest of the journey to the coast where it will be lifted by crane and stacked on a massive container ship for the voyage across the ocean. When it reaches port, that same container will be unloaded and attached to a truck or train where it will make its way to your local distribution warehouse. There, it will finally be unloaded and packaged to make its way to your front porch. 


The impact of the shipping container ranges from faster shipping times and less manual labor to more cost-effectiveness and more efficient use of space. Perhaps the best way to illustrate these impacts is through numbers.  

When the shipping container first started to be used on a large scale, it brought the price of loading cargo from $5.86 per ton to just $0.16 per ton. 

By the 1980s, 90% of countries had container-ready ports, making the standard shipping container a staple in international shipping. The shipping industry continued to evolve and expand over the years, with bigger ships accommodating more containers and more cargo. 

In 1980, with about 90% of goods being shipped in containers, these boxes carried around 102 million metric tons of goods. By 2017, the amount of container-carried cargo had skyrocketed to 1.83 billion metric tons. 

Nowadays, 95% of all manufactured goods are shipped around the world in containers. In 2017 alone, containers transported $4 trillion of products. These numbers didn’t just happen by magic. In the last twenty years, the size of container ships has doubled, allowing the biggest among them to haul close to 24,000 containers. 

To put this sheer number of products into perspective, a similar container ship named The Globe can carry 19,100 containers, nearly 5,000 less than the largest ship. This still allows it to carry 156 million pairs of shoes, enough to lace up the entire population of Russia, 300 million tablets, enough to equip everyone in Mexico with two, or 900 million cans of baked beans, enough to meet the daily caloric needs of all of Japan, with plenty left over. 

Shipping containers have even reinvented residential and commercial spaces. People have taken this standard-sized unit, built to withstand extreme weather on the ocean, and repurposed it as living and office spaces. 

But not all the container’s impact has been good. The explosion in size of container ships has led to economic crises like the one caused by the Evergiven. Ships’ massive sizes make it easier to get stuck in waterways such as the Suez Canal. 

The overloading of these already massive ships has also led to environmental crises. In the winter of 2020 to 2021 alone, 3,000 containers fell into the ocean, littering the ocean with their cargo and disrupting marine ecosystems. 

On May 20, 2021, cargo aboard a ship off the coast of Sri Lanka, including 25 tons of nitric acid, exploded and burned for days. This disaster led to plastic pollution covering Sri Lankan beaches. 

On November 30, 2020, the ONE Apus, a ship carrying goods from China to Los Angeles, lost 1,800 containers in waters 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai’i. Some of the containers lost were carrying goods like batteries, fireworks, and liquid ethanol, which would have less than desirable effects on the ocean habitat.

These examples stand out as the worst among their kind, but there seems to be no solution in sight yet. Ever since the pandemic, online shopping has increased, leading to a spike in overseas shipping. In April 2021, the National Retail Federation announced ten straight months of record high imports from Asia to the U.S. West Coast. 

Problems associated with a stress on the shipping industry—backed up ports, delayed delivery, and container shortage—have become more common and are expected to continue in the future. This has led to more ships traveling the seas during the stormy fall and winter seasons to meet consumer demands. With 6,000 container ships on the ocean every day transporting 226 million containers every year, it’s easy to imagine how many accidents can happen and the scale of the environmental impact they will have. 

The shipping container has transformed both the business and the ecological environment. Considering the trends we see today and where they may lead, we can see that the shipping container is likely to remain a mainstay of international shipping, both with its economic impact and its role in today’s increased consumerism. What will be interesting to see, though, is what other out-of-the-box impacts this simple idea has in store for us.  











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