The History of Container Shipping

Container shipping is the most popular mode of transportation today and a major pillar of the global economy, but in the 1950s it was only a dream.

We will return to the creation of the "first container", the need for the "first container ship" and the historical development of the container shipping industry.


It all started in 1766 when James Brindley, one of the most important engineers of the 18th century, designed the Starvationer, a boat to transport coal between coal mines in England. The boat could carry 10 wooden containers to carry coal on the Bridgewater Canal in England.


Nearly 30 years later, in 1795, Englishman Benjamin Outram, a civil engineer, surveyor and canal and tramway pioneer, came up with what many consider to be the "first container". The purpose of the Outram container was also to transport coal.

Horses dragged containers from the coal mines along the railroads to the canals, where they were transported on barges. Once they reached their destination, they were again unloaded from the barges and transported to their final destination on horseback. We can call it the "first intermodal service" in history.

This is how container shipping began.


In the 1830s, coal was transported by train. The railway wagon contained four simple wooden containers, which were then loaded into horse-drawn wagons. Each wagon could carry one container.


In the 1840s, iron boxes were introduced and used in addition to wooden ones.

20th century:

Enclosed models for road and rail began to appear in the early 20th century. Around the same time, before the Second World War, various primitive container prototypes began to appear in various European countries.


In 1927, we see the luggage of passengers on a luxury train between London, UK and Paris, France being packed into four containers.


Malcolm McLean (1913–2001) was born in North Carolina. He graduated from high school in 1931, after which he worked for several years to raise money to buy a used truck. In 1934 McLean founded his own trucking company, which would soon operate five trucks.


In 1937, Malcolm McLean saw dockers packing and unloading goods for hours and thought it was a waste of time and money.


By 1950, Malcolm McLean's company had grown to 1,750 trucks, becoming the fifth largest firm in its field in America.

With weight limits and taxes on freight shipping beginning to apply around 1950, and fines not uncommon for his company drivers, McLean conceived the idea of ​​developing a standard-sized container trailer that could be loaded onto ships by the hundreds.

This would mean decommissioning most of the trucks and using ships to transport goods to various truck terminals in the city's ports, resulting in fewer fines.


McLean's next move was to sell his trucking business in 1955 and take out a loan, which he used in part to buy a shipping company called the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, which already had mooring rights in several eastern US port cities.

McLean began to test different variants of containers, coming up with a primitive model known even today as a container. However, unlike modern 20- and 40-foot containers, this container was about 11 meters long. It was a standard, durable, stackable, easy to load and lockable solution.

Not surprisingly, these containers needed a suitable ship that could carry these boxes.

For this reason, McLean bought several World War II T2 tankers to modify them so that they could carry 58 containers and 15,000 tons of oil.

Meanwhile, the first dedicated container ship, the Clifford J.Rodgers, entered service that same year and was used to deliver custom freight containers from rail yards in Vancouver and Skagway.

Clifford J.Rodgers was 102.24 m long, 14.33 m wide and could carry specially designed 2.14 m long containers with a capacity possibly equivalent to 65-70 TEU. The ship could reach a speed of 11.75 knots and was controlled by 15 crew members.


The most notable moment in the history of container shipping occurred in 1956 when the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company used one of the Ideal X tankers to carry containers on an intra-US route. On April 26, 1956, the Ideal X left the port of New Jersey for Houston with cargo trailers.

Orders soon began pouring in, as McLean was able to offer trucking solutions at a price that was 25% less than the corresponding cost of traditional transportation methods.

After the successful maiden voyage of the Ideal X, McLean ordered the Gateway City, the world's first ship designed from the ground up for container shipping.


Gateway City holds 226 containers and made its maiden voyage in October 1957 from the Port of New Jersey to the Port of Miami. The cargo was packed and unloaded by only two loaders at a speed of 30 tons per hour.


Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company was renamed Sealand Industries in 1960.


Ideal X was scrapped in Japan in 1964 after being badly damaged in inclement weather.


By 1966 containers were moving out of the US to the Netherlands, Scotland, Vietnam and East Asia.


More than 30 years later, in 1999, SeaLand was acquired by the Danish transport giant Maersk, which is still one of the largest container shipping companies in the world.

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