Short history of containerisation

2021/06/22 at 1:54 PM

A quite obvious thing in the logistics industry. Everyone uses them, the infrastructure has to be adapted to them. But they are with us for a relatively short time. How did these metal boxes take over the world?

Before shipping containers became, even at the beginning of the twentieth century, freight was handled manually as break bulk transport. Whatever was supposed to go on the road – it was transported and arranged many times: from the factory, through subsequent warehouses, to the ship’s hold. It’s hard to imagine how much time and human work it used to take! And also how much risk the load itself was exposed to! Sacks, boxes or barrels only partially were able to help to optimize handling and protect the transported goods. In the 18th century in England, crates similar to today’s containers began to be used in horse and rail transport, but the idea did not spread wider.

Containers, source: Michela Canale

It took until the 20th century to make the real breakthrough that we all benefit from today. The first attempts to transport standardisation took place in 1905. As the UNCTAD Report on Unitization of Cargo says, there was used for the first time a steel, not suitable for stacking, metal box with dimensions of 18 ‘× 8’ × 8 ‘. The carrier that used such a box was the Bowling Green Lift-Van Company of New York. This container (then called a lift-van) was used to transport cargo on the route between Europe and North America. Others carriers liked the idea and the advantages of transporting in metal boxes were quickly noticed. Even before the First World War, lift-vans were used by five carriers. And the entire park amounted to over 100 units! The development of the concept was also carried out in Poland, which is mentioned in the frame below. From 1929, the luggage of passengers on the Golden Arrow train from London to Paris had been also transported in containers, and in 1934 the first international standard for road and rail containers was developed in Europe. An International Convention on the mutual use of load boxes was also formulated, to which Poland joined in 1938. Unfortunately, World War II disrupted international transport and directed the attention of decision-makers to other areas. The post-war division into Eastern and Western Europe meant that work on transport systems moved in two different directions.

At that time an American, Malcolm McLean worked on developing the idea, and he is credited with the official authorship of the containers we know. He gave impetus to the matter and made containerization a permanent standard in the world of transport, undoubtedly. In 1955, he invested all his assets in the conversion of a war tanker for the transport of standardized 35-foot containers. A year later, his first container ship, called Ideal X, set off on its first voyage with the cargo in less than sixty containers. That was a period of increased movement in international trade so the idea was quickly gaining support. Therefore, after a decade, the first container ships began to leave the shipyards. In 1968, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) finally defined what a container is and what are the standards in terms of dimensions, weight and design. Successive ports began to adapt their infrastructure to the container format, overhead cranes appeared. Specialists began their work on stacking system. The first in Europe and one of the largest in the world container terminal was built in Rotterdam in 1968.

Today it is difficult to imagine a transport without containers. How important this metal box is and how much it affects the international trade, we could all convinced painfully last months, seeing exceptionally high rental rates.

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