Today, the container is as much part of your everyday as, eh, a mobile phone. Just like the mobile phone, it is as if the container has been part of us, of world trade, forever. But it has not. The container does not come in all sizes, but despite that it holds a very significant portion of things produced in one end of the world and sold in all markets.
“This really low-tech invention…has done more for global trade than anything else” (Søren Skou, 2012).
Boxes for the transport of goods came in many forms before 1956, but it widely recognized that containerisation as a concept was initiated when Malcom McLean shipped 58 containers from Newark, New Jersey, on 26 April 1956.
Malcom McLean established Sea-Land and became the true first mover of containerization. Sea-Land was acquired by Maersk in 1999.
The first containers that were introduced in the United States were 16, 24 or 35 feet long – shipping companies were marketing their size as the optimal one to retain customers.
However, for the wider penetration of the container, standardisation was needed.
Early Maersk Line containers in transit from our break-bulk terminal at Pier 11 in Brooklyn, New York.
The dimensions for the standard container as we know it today, were agreed in 1964 – the original standard called for 8 feet high x 8 feet wide and variable lengths of 10, 20, 30 and 40 feet. The 20 and 40 feet containers won in the market; shipowners started ordering ships and train cars and truck chassis were adapted to meet the new dimensions.
Our first dedicated container train was introduced in the United States in 1986.
The genius of today’s container shipping is inter-modalism; a container with its content can be moved from one form of transport to another – from ship to train to truck. What’s inside stays inside, well protected.
That might seem obvious today, but the impact on insurance cost (that came down) and port efficiency (which went up) was unimaginable when the standard container entered the market from the mid-1960’s.
The fixed dimensions of the container would make transporting goods five times more efficient than the conventional break-bulk cargo ships.
The first international shipment – from the United States to Europe – of a twenty-foot container took place in 1966, and from then on, the container did not look back. Slowly, but surely, it became the system that best fit the shipper’s needs from a cost and effectiveness standpoint.
Customers throughout South East Asia quickly took advantage of shipping in containers. Even in early days without container cranes, the efficiency gains in cargo handling were dramatic.
The container, and the entire shipping industry delivering the world’s goods end-to-end, has become the main facilitators of the globalisation of trade. Today, a company can choose to have its headquarters in one part of the world, its production facilities in another and sell its brands in all markets. Because of the container and low-cost, efficient shipping.