The steel box that changed the world
The origins of the first container reach back into the 18th century. But it was quite a while before 58 identical steel receptacles full of freight were loaded onto a containership in the USA in 1956.
In the 18th century packaging boxes made of wood, used to transport goods in the United Kingdom, were the earliest forms of the modern container (the Latin word continere means to hold together, to contain). In the early 20th century the first standardised railway containers were developed. The step forward from that to a system that allows for the units to be re-used was then not a major one any more.
In 1937 the young US road haulier Malcolm McLean thought it would be a good idea to load trucks onto freighters in their entirety. Later he thought trailers with their loaded contents should be the working unit, and finally he hit upon the idea of taking the steel boxes themselves off the lorries for loading – instead of handling every package and every bale separately. But it was 20 years later before he developed his concept into a standardised, stackable receptacle. 58 large metal containers were dispatched on a domestic short sea trip on 26 April 1956, on board the specially-converted freighter Ideal X, which sailed from Houston TX to the port of Newark NJ. Thus container shipping was born. McLean’s vision of a closed transport chain on land, at sea and on the rails started to become reality.
It soon caught people’s imagination. In 1957 Aimé Fauré, the head of commercial services with the Société Générale de Transports Maritimes, reported in great detail in the ITJ on the growing importance of the large receptacles. In an article entitled «Containers in maritime traffic between France and North Africa» Fauré wrote:
«It would be superfluous to describe a container in detail, as it is now such a widespread sight. For some years now this piece of transport equipment has been building up its important role for the transportation of certain types of goods, largely as a result of the multifarious advantages it offers trade and industry. It indisputably enables the particularly safe and secure door-to-door handling of foodstuffs and many other types of goods, as it was designed to do, irrespective of the distance that has to be covered or the mode of transport used (lorries, the railways or maritime vessels).»
In 1961 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) determined the universally-applicable size of ISO containers. Over the years it became apparent that the invention of the standardised container was the greatest revolution in the history of transport since the Sumerians had invented the wheel in the middle of the 4th millennium BC.
There is no doubt that the standardised container revolutionised global goods transportation in the second half of the 20th century, and simultaneously completely restructured world trade. The 20 and the 40-foot equivalent units are the most important and best-known types of containers. There are around 28 million of the steel boxes in action today.