By Christoph Beuttler

07 November 2014 - 07:57

'It could be argued that shipping containers date back to prehistoric and Roman times.' Photo (c) pete, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'It could be argued that shipping containers date back to prehistoric and Roman times.' Photo ©

pete, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the British Council. To celebrate with us, 10,000 people across the world have ranked the top 80 moments of the last 80 years. In the first of our series, Christoph Beuttler explains how the humble shipping container -- number 69 on the list -- shaped the world.

Few items of vast importance are given as little attention as the shipping container. Yet a lot of the things we own and use -- from the TV in the living room to fresh flowers on the table -- have spent time in one. If it weren't for this humble box, chances are we wouldn't have these goods at our disposal.

Was the shipping container invented by the ancient Romans?

It could be argued that shipping containers date back to prehistoric and Roman times. One only has to think of amphorae. They were all roughly the same size, could be relatively easily transferred from an ox cart to a ship and back. They were used in all of the then-known world, from Byzantium to Cornwall.

Modern containerisation most likely originated in the coal-mining regions of England, from the late 18th century onwards. By the 1830s, railroads were carrying standardised sealed containers, that could be transferred to other modes of transport relatively easily.

Reading the history of the shipping container, one can however explain its origins quite quickly. An American transport magnate by the name of Malcom McLean invented it after spotting an opportunity to speed up his trucking business and thus save costs. On the morning of 26 April 1956, he had 58 newly developed 30-foot containers loaded on a refitted tanker ship in Newark, New Jersey, and sailed them to Houston, Texas, where 58 lorries were waiting to pick them up.

The story then goes that the widespread adoption of these intermodal standardised containers slashed the cost of shipping, which resulted in the globalisation of goods and value chains we see today. However, this is a simplistic version of the story.

Why the invention of the shipping container didn't immediately slash shipping costs

Research shows that there was no decrease in shipping cost at the time the shipping container was invented; costs remained relatively stable until the 1970s and then increased following the oil crisis.

It might also come as a surprise that container size was not globally standardised immediately after McLean's invention, which would have made global shipping cheaper. In fact, containers took another 20 years to become standardised.

The shipping container did eventually contribute to more cost-effective shipping, but some further steps were necessary before this could happen.

The shipping container's success was dependent on wider technological improvements in shipping

Before the 1850s, shipping was particularly difficult, and arrival times were hard to predict. The wooden ships still used wind power to propel themselves, slowly. In that situation, it was impossible to develop tight arrival and departure schedules, including schedules for loading and unloading. At that time, and for another 120 years, the unreliability of ships was perceived as a greater cost issue than the time it took to load and unload their cargo.

However, when ships finally became reliable enough through gradual improvements in shipping technology (e.g., the advent of steam- and later diesel-powered ships), the focus shifted to how time could also be saved during the loading and unloading process. This, in fact, is the moment when the shipping container took centre-stage.

The same applies to planes carrying containers. In a very short period of time, planes became faster, bigger and very reliable. The question of how to save time when loading and unloading goods became a more important consideration than it was when planes could not be relied on as much.

There were other benefits, too

What other implications did the container bring with it? First, sealed containers reduced the amount of theft by dockworkers and, with that, insurance rates went down. Second, cranes powered by electricity or oil for swift loading and unloading replaced dockworkers, which meant strike-related delays became less frequent. Third, some argue that the adoption of the container not only coincided with, but caused, lower tariffs. In any case, it is safe to say that the two were mutually reinforcing.

The shipping container has changed the world

The container has changed the world, but not only for the good. Cranes -- needed to load and unload containers -- substituted men with machines. Ports have needed to change to accommodate larger ships and unloading facilities. The number of smaller inner city ports has diminished, because larger ships carrying containers can't access them. This has affected the employment opportunities these ports offered to local communities, such as in London, Liverpool or New York's docklands.

On the other hand, this development has given rise to new specialised container ports all over the world. This has brought wealth to new places all over the globe: for example, large industrial ports in China.

Improvements in transport also coincided with improvements in the production process. As a result, last-minute orders of mass-produced goods became possible.

One inherent weakness of the container

What we tend to forget in all this, however, is that the container does not move itself. Today, the transport technologies that power the vast bulk of the world’s economy are under threat. More than 70 per cent of the oil that the world consumes is used for transportation: boats, planes, cars. But it's not just dwindling oil resources and the resulting high prices that jeopardise our current transportation system.

Climate change -- largely a result of this transportation system -- often results in weather conditions unconducive to shipping or flying. And political tensions over scarce resources make the world a less open place through trade embargos, wars or piracy. Heightened security means larger costs and delays.

Have we passed the peak of globalisation already?

Concorde is not flying anymore, making ultrasonic commercial flight already a thing of the past. Fuel costs can be saved by ships moving more slowly as well. Sadly, it seems that energy innovations come about too slowly to match other fields.

The results are starting to show. Production is becoming more local in places. The American Rust Belt is producing local steel again. A larger, newly developed 53-foot shipping container has failed to catch on.

If these problems aren't solved swiftly and on a large scale -- which at this point seems unlikely -- we may see more containers being used as cheap, flexible spaces for small businesses and housing. Their location might change from ports and trucks to trendy urban centres, like Frau Gerold's Garden, a Zürich-based bar and shop area which uses shipping containers as facilities. So the container might change the world once more. This time, it might just be the world you and I actually spend our daily lives in.

In the context of its 80th anniversary, the British Council has produced -- with the help of eminent experts and the public in ten countries -- a ranking of the top 80 moments, developments, individuals, and changes of the last 80 years. Today, we reveal moments 80 to 61:

80. The work and influence of the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, 1940-2009
79. The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the German parliament building (the Reichstag) in fabric in 1995
78. The continuing influence throughout the 20th century of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen
77. Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, first staged in 1953
76. The influence of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) group of French filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s
75. The founding (in 1961) and lasting influence of Amnesty International
74. The work and influence of the American artist Andy Warhol, 1928-1987
73. The achievements and influence of Norwegian athlete Grete Waitz, who won nine consecutive New York Marathons between 1978 and 1988
72. The protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’, popularised by the American folk singer Pete Seeger in 1963
71. The work and influence of the artist Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973
70. The achievements and influence of the champion boxer Muhammad Ali, born 1942
69. The development of the shipping container
68. The achievements of the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming
67. The work and influence of the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, 1910-1998
66. The black American athlete Jesse Owens, who won 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin
65. Discovery of the fossil ‘Australopithecus sediba’ in 2008 in South Africa -- a human species thought to be two million years old
64. The adoption of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the international community
63. The invention of the instant noodle, produced and first marketed in 1958
62. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who became an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991
61. The creation in 1970 of the Open University in the UK, the world’s first successful 'distance teaching' university

What is your view? We want to know if you agree or disagree with the top 80  - 61. Which missing moment, person or innovation do you think should be in the list?

About the author: Christoph Beuttler researched and taught on the subject of international value chains, transportation, globalisation and sustainability at the University of London for several years. He now works and lives in Zürich, Switzerland.

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