The idea of using large boxes to ship goods goes back as far as the late 19th century. Although the invention of the shipping container as we know it today did not arise until the late 1950s, as we mentioned on a previous article, Origins of Containerization, companies in the freight shipping industry had identified this need long before. This “trial and error” period was indispensable for the eventual invention of the now popular and widely used shipping or portable storage containers. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the different factors that led to such a milestone in the shipping industry and, eventually, in the development of a globalized economy.
According to Marc Levinson, in his book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2006), “French and British railways tried wooden containers to move household furniture in the late nineteenth century, using cranes to transfer the boxes from rail flatcars to horse carts” (p. 29). Later, in the 1920s, as motorized cars, especially trucks, started being used more by civilians, there were other attempts to implement containers in the shipping industry. The idea was to use containers interchangeably among trucks, trains, warehouses, and vessels. However, despite the innovative ideas of the visionaries of the time, the use of containers was far from making shipping more efficient. There were some aspects, such as size and materials with which the containers were built, just to mention a few, that resulted in an increase in costs in many cases.
The first containers that were ever made for shipping were made up of wood, their sizes varied depending on the goods they were to transport, and they were open at the top. Because of this, they did not ensure that the quality of the merchandise would remain intact upon delivering. Also, it posed an efficiency issue because once the ships dropped the merchandise at the ports, they had to travel back to the port of origin with the containers empty. Another efficiency issue these first containers presented was that since there was no standardization regarding the sizes, they could not be utilized for shipping different products from different industries, but rather they were limited to transport the same kind of merchandise repeatedly. Evidently, this was far from efficient.
It was after the World War II that a new stage of experimentation began. In the 1940s, the U.S Army started using small metal containers to transport soldiers’ belongings. In Denmark, a company designed the first ships for exclusively transporting containers. It can be said that most companies in the freight shipping industry around the world were coming up with new inventions to facilitate the use of containers. Nevertheless, container shipping was not as efficient as one would think it was. In fact, the cost of shipping was many times much greater than that of loose freight, many times being over 75% more.
Although the first shipping containers were far from making shipping logistics and costs more efficient, they were a fundamental step for what would come later. If it was not because of the many inconveniences the first containers presented, there would not have been precedents for what would later be the containerization as we know it. As all great humans’ inventions, it evolved slowly, improving every time based on previous failures.
At Great Lakes Kwik Space, we are proud to be Chicagoland and surrounding areas’ containerization experts. For any of your shipping or portable storage containers needs, please call us now at 800-966-1016.