The shipping container: from outsider to indispensable giant

If you look around, the computer you have in front of you, the coffee next to it and the phone in your hand were once part of the cargo inside a large shipping container. This travelled hundreds of miles by sea before these things could be delivered to your door. Of all the goods in the world, 90% are shipped this way. All of us spend some amount of time in the safety of our home before heading out into the world. For goods, this home is the big four walls of a container. That is why these things resembling large floating blocks of Lego are so indispensable to the global transport chain today. Without them things would certainly not run so smoothly. But this was not always the case.

The problem which gave rise to the idea

Wherever business was booming, there was a need for transportation. But this was unable to keep up with expansion of the market. Sacks, crates and amphorae were used. This method was inefficient in terms of both time and cost. A problem arose which needed to be solved, but the world had to wait a long time for a pioneer with a new vision.

Eventually, the world found the visionary it so badly needed. This was the American businessman, Malcolm McLean. He owned a freight company and, like any good businessman, was always thinking about ways to improve his company. Unloading goods from lorries took too much time and manpower, so he came up with the idea of moving all the contents from the ship to the lorry using a large steel crate. The idea and the project were on the table. The only thing missing was investors. Nobody put much faith in his vision and saw the investment as the risky whim of a foolish idealist.

However, all doubts vanished in 1956 when the first cargo container ship set sail. This was converted from a tanker which had served during World War II under the name Ideal X. The ship embarked from the port of Newark, New Jersey, on an absolutely unprecedented journey with 58 containers on board. Its destination was the port of Houston, Texas.

This simple steel box would revolutionise transportation. Thanks to the low cost, most cargo started to be imported from the other side of the world. Ships were converted to fit the dimensions of containers and a new era of trade began.

Did you know that …

according to The Economist, “The shipping container has been a bigger driving force for globalisation than all the trade agreements of the last 50 years put together.”

Even a shipping container can come in 100 different shapes

No two containers are alike. The label of a boring metal box has long since worn off and after more than half a century of existence, new uses are still being found for shipping containers. Be this for portable site offices, art or even accommodation, there are no limits to the imagination and human creativity never ceases to take advantage of this.

For students, finding a place to lay their heads is quite a tricky thing. Flats are expensive and dorms are always overcrowded. So, renting a container seems like it might be a golden opportunity. Architect Holzer Kobler designed a shipping container complex nestled just outside the centre of Berlin to serve as student accommodation. The complex includes rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and even a laundry room. But this is not the only building like this in Berlin. Platoon Kunsthalle, an experimental space for artists and creative people, opened in 2012. It stands next to the Berlin Television Tower, consists of 34 containers and is open to anyone who wants to experience extraordinary exhibitions, concerts or workshops.

When you hear the word Marvel, you probably think of at least one superhero. It was precisely this giant company which used containers to tour Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia with its show. It installed interactive boards, shops, comics and cafes inside them. This led to the creation of a unique experience which was easy to pack up and move to a new location.

Containers have come to find application not only in the world of business and entertainment, but also for non-profit organisations. A school and library were built in Omolulu, Anguilla in just 90 days. Due to its design, it is resistant to adverse weather and hurricanes. With a simple container, it is therefore possible to bring much-needed education to hard-to-reach places around the world.


Did you know that …

a shipping container fell off a ship spilling its cargo into the North Pacific in 1992 and its story gave birth to a book? Specifically, this container provided storage for 28,000 yellow rubber ducks. After the accident, they got out and scattered all over the world. They are still being found off the coast of America to this very day.


A question of the environment

While shipping has been proven to be more environmentally friendly than most other methods of transportation, there is still the fact that ships burn oil. This means that harmful substances such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur and CO2 are released into the air and sea. In total, this means that shipping accounts for 10% of all transport emissions every year.

One of the main problems is the hole in the logistics chain which is responsible for sending empty containers back and forth unnecessarily. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, these problems ceased for a time. People had to spend time at home and ordering of goods experienced an enormous increase. It was therefore possible to fill the containers and use them before they were sent to the next port. With the tightening of conditions and hygiene measures at workplaces, staff numbers dropped significantly. Orders did not decrease, but the number of people handling them did, and so the problem of transporting empty shipping containers returned to its old ways.

Because of this, the International Maritime Organisation aims to reduce carbon emissions from the shipping industry by 40% by 2030 and to decarbonise the shipping sector completely by the end of the century. To achieve their goal, they are installing solar panels on ships, wind turbines and developing cleaner and more environmentally friendly fuels.


The world of shipping containers in numbers


  • There are around 5 million active containers in the world, making around 200 million journeys a year.
  • China is the world leader in their production with 97%.
  • With proper care, one container can last for up to 20 years.
  • More than a thousand are lost at sea every year.
  • Shanghai retains top spot as the busiest port in the world, handling 43 million containers every year.

Transportation of today

The container has come a long way, or rather sailed a long way, over the course of its existence. The previously mentioned Ideal X did not even have 60 of them on board, but the largest transport ship today, the Ever Ace, can hold an incredible 23,992 containers. This floating giant with a 400-meter-long deck for 20-foot containers was manufactured by Samsung Heavy Industries in South Korea. To navigate such colossi, the technology and overall logistics of the ports had to advance. Israeli company Orca AI has developed an AI navigator and sent a fully autonomous ship called Suzaku on a test cruise this year. Without human intervention, it completed a 790 km long route, including entering a busy bay, where it used algorithms and calculations to avoid 500 ships. Acute Market Reports, a global market research company, expects the market for autonomous navigation ships and related equipment to grow at an average annual rate of 12.6% and that it will reach a level of $ 235.7 billion in 2028.

The popularity of containers is constantly growing and their use is becoming more and more streamlined. They are fitted with insulation or, on the contrary, cooling. They are fitted with terminals for greater automation or hydraulic supports to save time for lorries. Thanks to used container markets, the purchase price is decreasing and transport can become even cheaper. With proper maintenance and the right accessories, their useful life increases at a dramatic rate.

The number of sectors in which shipping containers are needed is growing and together with this, so is demand for them. Be this for business and transportation, housing, the arts or the military, people can no longer imagine the world functioning without them. Who would have thought that a simple metal box could conquer the world in just a few years. The investors who once rejected Malcolm McLean had to live for many long years with the fact that they had made what was probably the biggest mistake of their lives.

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