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The Container That Changed the World

Shipping containers are everywhere. Fact. The prosaic, steel boxes are so overwhelmingly ubiquitous from New Jersey to New Orleans, Chicago to Charleston, Seattle to Savannah, Beijing to Boston, that we seldom even register their presence. You’ll find them huddling at each truck stop and dockside or skulking along every highway and expressway, conscientiously guarding their secrets. But, despite their ubiquity, you may be surprised to learn that the cuboid shipping containers we see today only came into being in the 1950s; or so the story goes.

The Trucker Who Dared to Think ‘Inside’ the Box

Freight folklore maintains (and who are we to doubt it?) that back in 1956, when Elvis Presley released his first single (Heartbreak Hotel) a trucking entrepreneur was also busy shaping history. Malcolm McLean, a resourceful North Carolinian, decided that he’d had enough of his truck fleet waiting to be unloaded by longshoremen on the busy Jersey City dockside. McLean’s lightbulb moment came when he realised it made far more sense to load the vehicles, complete with contents, directly onto ships. Or, better still, to make their containers removable! There are those who doubt this epiphany ever happened but, whatever the truth, McLean certainly became instrumental in the development of the shipping container industry, when he purchased an old oil tanker, the SS Ideal-X, and refitted it as a cargo vessel that could accommodate nearly sixty 35-foot sea containers and haul them down the east coast from New Jersey to Houston.

When Containers Became Game-changers

When the SS Ideal-X set sail on 26th April 1956, an official of the International Longshoremen’s Association looked on from the dock and it dawned on him that the future for the workers he represented was bleak. “I’d like to sink that son-of-a-bitch”, he was heard to remark. With far less need for dock workers around the world to manhandle cargoes, as they had for hundreds of years, all but a fraction would need to find alternative means to make a living.

Today, for better or worse, globalisation is all over the news and here to stay, and the advent of the intermodal shipping container, as envisioned by Malcolm Mclean sixty years ago, played a huge role in developing markets across the five continents. Some of us are old enough to recall the first wave of cheap, plastic toys, stamped with ‘Made in Hong Kong’ or ‘Made in Taiwan’ that surged out of the east during the 1960s, all carried in those familiar, cuboid containers. There are now an estimated 17 million shipping containers in existence, making approximately 200 million trips a year. There’s even a Chinese behemoth – the CSCL Globe – that covers an area larger than four football pitches and can hold 19,000 20-foot containers. It could even be headed for the Port of New Jersey right now. The stuff of Donald Trump’s nightmares!

But, while the rise of the shipping container triggered a great deal of resistance from traditional haulage industries, not least the railroad companies, they failed to anticipate that millions of intermodal containers would eventually be hauled by truck and train across the States each year. In fact, 12 million boxes travel by rail each year throughout the US, providing a welcome income stream for the train operators. They may not possess the mythic qualities of our legendary old boxcars but they are a hell of a lot more secure. Shipping containers are also the reason you can buy a Japanese TV in Chicago or Napa Valley wine in Tokyo. They have doubtless increased competition and put pressure on homegrown businesses through globalisation, but they have also significantly enriched consumer experience by offering vastly improved choices of products.