Containerization: The Most Influential Invention That You’ve Never Heard Of


Nearly everything we buy is made overseas.
No matter where you live, it’s likely that the majority of products you use on a daily
basis are made outside your own country’s borders. Even at the supermarket it’s common
to see fresh food that was grown or caught on the other side of the world. Not long ago,
this would have been unheard of. Everything had to be produced close to the consumer.
It just wasn’t profitable to ship goods over long distances. Only luxury and specialty
items were shipped from overseas. Very few commonplace items were produced more than
a couple hundred miles away from the final market. That all changed on April 26, 1956,
when the Ideal-X, a converted World War Two tanker left Newark, New Jersey on its maiden
journey. What was so special about this journey was that it was the first time in history
that a ship had its cargo packed into containers, rather than just loosely placed throughout
its holds. This seems like a simple and uninfluential concept, but this idea changed our world.
Before the Ideal-X, cargo was brought to port in trucks and loaded onto ships piece-by-piece.
Whisky and rice and hammers and everything was packed tightly in the hold, and the whole
loading process took more than a week. This technique, known as break bulk cargo, dated
back to the time of the Phoenicians. It was said that the dock workers wages were “twenty
dollars a day and all the Scotch you could carry home,” because theft of goods was
so rampant. This needed to change. Malcolm McLean, a trucking company owner, sold everything
he owned to buy a ship and develop the system of containerization. Unbearably simple, he
designed a corrugated steel box and created some trucks and a ship that would seamlessly
hold these boxes. This connected the manufacturer straight to the consumer. Manufacturers would
load these boxes, then no hands would touch the merchandise until the container was delivered
to the vendor, distributor, or consumer. One of the most amazing aspects of this system
of this system it became universal. We can’t even agree on currency, plug type, DVD standard,
or even which side of the road to drive on but we can agree, across the world, on the
one size of shipping container. A container loaded in Kansas will fit on the train that
takes it to the dock, then fit on the boat that takes it to China, then fit on the truck
that will take it up to Russia. Even some planes are now being designed to fit intermodal
containers. Theres no need for logistics, no need for calculations, no need for worrying
if the container will work in faraway countries. But what really changed our world was how
quick this system made the loading process of a ship. What used to take more than a week
could now be done in a matter of hours. Shipping costs plummeted after the introduction
of this system. Whole cities, such as Newark and Oakland were put on the map because of
their new, larger ports that were needed in response to the shipping boom. This system
also helped create the global economy that we have today, one where one car has elements
from dozens of countries across the world. Its now cheaper to manufacture many goods
on the other side of the world because shipping is so inexpensive. Containerization was the
greatest driver of the development of a global economy and trade network. The intermodal
container cut shipping time from Europe to Australia down from 70 to 34 days without
increasing the speed of the travel. We are still witnessing the aftermath of this innovation
today. Between 1993 and 2002, the average distance of a cargo shipment grew by 40%.
This means that goods are still being manufactured farther and farther away from their market.
The value per ton of cargo is also dropping. More and more cheap items are being shipped
from far away to be sold. However, many believe that containerization could have been the
last great innovation in shipping. Boats can’t really go any faster while still
being profitable. 15 knots is the average speed today for cargo ships and it’s unlikely
that this speed will increase in the near future. To make shipping faster and cheaper,
one needs to find other ways to speed up the process. There are some small changes being
developed, such as the automatization of ports and the further specialization of ships, however
the greatest innovation for shipping may come from the greatest threat to mankind. Global
warming is opening new routes for shipping. The once frozen Northeast passage north of
Scandinavia and Russia now can be sailed on for a few months of the year. In 2009, a German
cargo ship became the first commercial vessel to sail this route, and today multiple ships
use this route every year. The route shortens the shipping time between Europe and Asia
by days, avoid the pirate infested waters of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and saves
on average $300,000 in fuel per vessel per voyage.
So there you have it. Thats how a metal box changed our world. Without that box we wouldn’t
have our phones from China, our clothes from Bangladesh, or even our oranges from Florida.
Freight shipping is the behind the scenes process that has made our world what it is
today. Our economy and our lives would not be the same without this innovation. Containerization
may be little known, but its affects are more evident than almost any other invention of
the 20th century.

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