History of Shipping Containers

Shipping Containers

A modern shipping container is one of the most multipurpose transport units.
Once a container is loaded with cargo, it can be used as a safe storage for longer periods. Because of containers intermodal transportation there is no need to discharge cargo between loading and discharge places, as containers are easy to transport with barge, train, truck or container vessels.

Railway containers

In early 19th century, containers were widely taken into use in cargo transport, while moving from horse-drawn carts and wooden rails to steam locomotives and iron rails. However, it still took more than hundred years to integrate ships and terminals to same transportation chain from the perspective of intermodal shipping containers.

Army containers

During the Second World War, US Army and its alliances were struggling with the delivery of the necessary goods. The ship cargo loading and discharging times were very long. By launching the ”transporters” US Army highly speeded up its port terminal times. These transporters had standard dimensions: length 2,6m, width 1,91m, height of 2,08m and max payload of 4500kg.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Australian army also developed a cargo unit for the sea transportation. By that time Australian army designed container with the length of 20’ft , which is still one of the ISO standard dimensions for the container lengths.

Before standardisation

After the Second World War, in booming international trade, containers were discovered to be very efficient way of transporting cargo. Many factories in several continents were building containers. Problems of handling these different types of units occurred at the same time.
Too many different types of containers, cranes and handling equipment, not compatible with each other, were produced to the growing international cargo trade.
Quite soon, in year 1961, first”international standards for container sizes” were agreed.

Door to door

First intermodal traffic with containers was introduced by Malcom P. McLean from United States. In 1955, this trucking company owner invested to steamships and modified the vessels to carry the same containers as were carried also in his truck chassis. By doing this he was able to offer door to door services.

Containers today

In the research of Finnish University of Jyväskylä, estimated quantity of cargo worthy containers is around 30million pcs in the world. These units are doing about 150 million cargo transports annually.


Text: Tomi Invenius
World Shipping Council
Mark Lewinson, THE BOX
Wikipedia / containerization

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