black and white image of a shipping container being unloaded from a ship and onto a truck by a crane in the 1950s

A Brief Shipping Container History Lesson

Few innovations have been as transformative as the shipping container. At the intersection of commerce and logistics, the history of shipping containers and the evolution of containerization is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of efficiency. From humble beginnings to revolutionizing the way goods traverse the world’s oceans, this is the remarkable tale of how a simple metal box reshaped the dynamics of international trade.

About Shipping Containers & Their History

Early 20th Century Shipping

Ready to learn about shipping containers? Here’s the need-to-know history of container shipping. Prior to the 1950s, loading a cargo ship was a laborious process where cargo was loaded piece by piece onto a ship. During the Korean War, the US military developed the “Container Express” box system to make transporting supplies simpler. The term “Conex” comes from that system, and Conex is still synonymous with shipping containers to this day. There were also a large variety of different container systems in use prior to the 1950’s, but each shipping container was still very different from company to company, and not easily interchangeable.

historical photo of cargo being manually unloaded at a dock before shipping containers were used

Containerization of Shipping

Malcom McLean is often credited with “inventing” the shipping container, but that’s a bit of a stretch. McLean was certainly the first to successfully commercialize container shipping, but definitely was not the first to come up with the idea. For instance the Bureau International des Containers (BIC) was founded in 1933, 23 years before McLean would shuttle a few dozen containers from Newark to Houston on a re-purposed World War II cargo ship in 1956.  Matson would soon follow, and began offering containerized freight services two years later.

Malcom McLean, 1957

Standardized Shipping Containers

Sealand (Malcom McLean’s original container shipping company, now owned by Maersk) had 33′ and 35′ shipping containers.  Matson’s shipping containers were 24′ long. In the late 1960’s the International Organization for Standardization (commonly referred to as ISO) established standards for shipping container dimensions via ISO 668. Due to the standards set forth by the ISO, containers are now measured in TEU’s (twenty-foot equivalent units).  Today there are over 34,000,000 TEU in circulation (or roughly 20,000,000 shipping containers).

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