History of Containers

2016 marks the 60th year of the container revolution. In those sixty years, the world has seen a massive reduction in shipping costs and resources required to get cargo from one side of the planet to the other. The International Standard Organization (ISO) container revolutionized the shipping industry. For example, in 1956 cargo cost $5.86 per ton to load; today it averages 16 cents per ton. This massive price reduction and shipping expansion is the lifeline that allowed economies to expand on an exponential scale and is now a pivotal part of our global economy.

Most people know the name Henry Ford. He changed the way the world got around with his Ford vehicles at the onset of the 20th century. Not many people know who Malcolm McLean is. He changed the way cargo moves around the world. In 1955 McLean owned a respectable land-based shipping company. He had a sizable fleet of trucks he leased to clients that used roadways and the railroad system to move products. Up to that point, McLean hadn’t considered expanding his business into overseas shipping. However, that same year, while watching some of his workers unload a truck, he had an idea. He thought the world would be better served by using one universal shipping container; one that could be loaded from truck to rail to ship without ever being opened. Such a container could be secured and never exposed to the harsh elements normally encountered on cross-country trips and high seas voyages. McLean’s great idea sparked the beginning of the ISO container revolution. While innovative at the time, now that forward-thinking idea seems like it was the only solution for the expansion of world-wide business.

While he wasn’t the first to think up the concept of shipping standardization, he was the first to design a container that could withstand the heavy loads demanded by manufactures while being light enough to stack 10 units high. This was made possible by the four pillar design that McLean pioneered.

While the design was innovative, it took a while to become a popular alternative in the shipping industry. The first international trip with ISO containers took place over ten years after their initial use. In 1966, McLean’s Fairland sailed from the United States to the Netherlands with over 200 containers; a triumph for its day. Now, the world’s largest cargo ship, CSCL Globe, is able to carry over 19,000 containers at a time. That’s a 9500 percent increase in volume in fifty years. The global affect has been staggering. Sixty percent of all manufactured goods travel in a container at some point. Ninety percent of every purchased item worldwide is shipped in a container during its life. All that cargo is loaded on to eighteen million containers worldwide.

McLean’s design is now carried 200 million times a year on over 6000 ships, millions of railcars and countless trucks. Further success of the design is evidenced by McLean himself. He went on to sell his modest shipping company for 160 million dollars solely because of his innovative design.

Containers have come a long way. While sizes varied, a standard was developed. The R-1897 publication set out the minimum standards for internal dimensions. That same standard is still in place today. It is versatile enough to carry heavy machinery, clothing racks, heat sensitive chemicals, refrigerated produce, toxic waste or even children’s toys. Through the innovative design of Malcolm McLean, the current ISO configuration will likely be the staple of global shipping in the foreseeable future.