Today, we see shipping containers as a standard equipment used in shipping products from one place to another. However, before the 1950’s, there was no concept of using metal box transport goods. Even the 20ft shipping containers that we know of were not invented then. Before the advent of the shipping containers, goods were packed into the hold of a ship or simply piled onto the ship wherever they could fit, and the ship would sail to its destination. Goods that were packed after production, such as barrels of liquor, bottles of whisky, or crates of packed, or tinned products, were pretty much the only packages that they had. Ropes usually bound the fabric in rolls or bundles, and all these products were loaded onto the ship in the best way it could.

Malcolm McLean

During this time, a trucking businessman, Malcolm McLean, who had been in the freight transportation industry for some time now observed that the current way of packing and transporting products on the cargo ships was inefficient. The problem that McLean was facing was the immense loading and unloading time spent at the docks as well as the high rate of losses. The losses were in the form of products being damaged, getting lost and most of all, being stolen.

It was not uncommon for the ships to spend several days and even weeks docked at the port being unloaded. A huge dock crew of workers was required to unload ships, and during that period, theft was the biggest problem. Even at docks where cranes were used, the cranes’ platform had to be loaded by the workers before it carried the platform over to the dock where workers again had to unload the products and then load them onto a lorry or truck.

A New Era

McLean designed the first shipping container to be picked up by a crane from the ship and deposited directly onto the chassis of a truck. Thus, it was intended to be of the same size as the dimensions of the rear end of the vehicle. As this worked out to be an excellent solution, the idea expanded to trains. Now, containers can be loaded directly onto a train with a carrier of the same dimensions.

Expanding Horizons

As the shipping containers became standardised, (so they could be easily transported by ship, train and lorry) they made a large influence on the design of ships and ports. The number of docks decreased as the size of docks increased. Now docks can handle immense amounts of cargo without having to be troubled with dock labour to unload and load the goods. Similarly, the design of the ships was now based on the container itself. Much larger ships were built to accommodate a higher number of containers and hence goods.

That then brings us to the modern day, where the concept of loose cargo being shipped is nearly non-existent, and large vessels are available to carry thousands of tonnes of cargo.

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