How Those Big-Box Containers Shaped Up Shipping

By Anny Oberlink

Soaring freight rates. Delayed Halloween costumes. A computer chip shortage. Even after nearly two years of headaches fueled by the pandemic, shipping gridlocks and snarled routes remain hurdles in the supply chain. By the end of 2021, nearly 77 percent of the world’s ports were experiencing delays, the economic researcher Moody’s Analytics warned, adding that the disruptions “will get worse before they get better.”

Whether or not that happens, the humble shipping container has taken the spotlight. Ninety percent of all global trade travels in them: Smartphones, furniture, bananas and cookbooks all have likely spent time in a container, traveling thousands of miles from overseas. Shipping containers are at the center of an intricate web of logistics and management that delivers commodities to consumers.

An image from RetroReport
1906 Dock workers in Seattle unloaded crates of shredded coconut by hand from a freighter.

The idea of using a box to transport goods is not revolutionary. But what makes the shipping container unique is its standardized size. Before that innovation, mismatched containers and the lack of an integrated system for moving goods slowed shipments.

The first attempt to standardize containers is attributed to the trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean. In the early 1950s, McLean was focused on freeing up highway congestion on the East Coast as the new federal highway system enabled a flow of commercial transport that slowed down at the ports. At the time, skilled longshore workers transferred cargo of all shapes and sizes by hand.

An image from RetroReport
JULY 1937 Bananas from Mexico arriving in New York were transferred by conveyor belt from the hold of the ship, then carried by hand to freight cars.
An image from RetroReport
APRIL 26, 1956 A crane placed a container on the deck of SS Ideal-X every seven minutes. The ship was loaded in less than eight hours and set sail the same day. (Photo: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

McLean’s innovation was to consolidate smaller parcels into standardized truck trailers and place the trailers directly onto ships. In 1956, the first container ship, a converted World War II oil tanker SS Ideal-X, above, made its inaugural voyage from New Jersey to Texas, carrying 58 containers. The ship was loaded in under eight hours, an unprecedented feat considering that cargo ships typically took several days to load. The tanker had been reconfigured to allow containers to be lowered by crane into the framework, without the need for longshore workers to stow cargo.

Ideal-X’s journey set off a momentous shift in the shipping industry. The new process reduced costs, streamlined shipments and expedited turnaround time.

Containerization gained a solid foothold when it was adopted by the U.S. military. The container became a vital mover during the Vietnam War, deployed to solve the challenge of sending supplies to a war zone. McLean’s containerization system reduced shipping costs dramatically. By the end of the war, shipping goods by container had become the norm.

The new system revolutionized globalized trade. But not everyone was happy about it. More efficient cargo handling required fewer human workers. In the late 1950s, Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, saw that mechanization was inevitable and sought to get the dock workers “a share of the machine.” After years of negotiations between union members and shipowners, a pact known as the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement of 1960 was ratified. It guaranteed the unimpeded efficient flow of cargo in exchange for unprecedented benefits for union workers.

Today’s supply chain disruptions have revealed the vulnerability of a fragile network falling out of sync. Economists and logistics experts have floated solutions to the problems with little consensus. President Biden launched an action plan in November to modernize port infrastructure, but delays persist. Faced with worker shortages, shippers have called for increasing AI and automation at ports to ease the strain, stoking tensions with the longshore union. Meanwhile, the cost of shipping a standard container from China to the U.S. has increased by threefold compared to a year ago, contributing to rising inflation.

A large container ship like the Ever Given, notorious for running aground in the Suez Canal in 2020, can carry around 18,000 containers, a massive increase from Ideal-X’s 58. Millions of containers are in circulation worldwide, even as a shipping container shortage is exacerbating the disruptions. But manufacturing even more shipping containers won’t necessarily untangle the kinks: they still need to be quickly unloaded at ports, which remain jammed with uncollected containers.

So for now, consumers and retailers will have to live with delayed merchandise, emptier shelves and rising prices. Stacks of shipping containers may be a fixture at ports for some time to come.

ANNY OBERLINK, a former intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

FURTHER READING
Object Lessons: Shipping Container by Craig Martin (Bloomsbury, 2016)
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson (Princeton University Press, 2016)

FOR CONTEXT Humans are wary that robots could replace them. So what can we learn from the legendary chess match between a supercomputer and Garry Kasparov?