A History of ISO Containers

ISO containers are more commonly known as a shipping or storage container. The ‘ISO’ stands for ‘International Organisation for Standardisation’, who are the body who have set the specifications of shipping containers to ensure that they are uniform and can be packed onto a ship properly.

When you are buying an ISO container you can be sure, therefore, that it will be a standard size – either 10ft20ft or 40ft – and that you will be able to successfully and safely stack them or join them. ISO containers are made to be suitable for transporting across a range of different transport systems including ships, rail or trucks – and this would only be possible because they are specific dimensions and design.

ISO Containers – The Beginning

ISO or shipping containers were an idea dreamt up in the USA by trucker, Malcolm McLean – he later changed his name to be spelled Malcom. Although there appear to have been some attempts beforehand around the world to devise a standardised cargo holding container, it was McLean in 1956 who first designed and patented the idea.

Until McLean’s idea came to fruition, the cargo was transported around the world in containers of all shapes and sizes, making it extremely difficult to transport efficiently in terms of space as well as to load and unload. This problem became apparent to McLean throughout his career as a trucker of over 20 years.

McLean had built up a successful trucking company, which he sold for $25 million in 1956 when he patented his concept of a standardised shipping container.

McLean then went on to buy the Pan Atlantic Tanker Company – a shipping company with some old ships which weren’t in good condition. He repaired the ships and adapted them to accommodate his patented shipping containers and begun to experiment with the transportation of cargo.

Sea-land Shipping

McLean later renamed his business ‘Sea-Land Shipping’ and perfected his design of a shipping container which was strong and able to withstand extremes of weather whilst being easy to stack onto cargo ships and transfer between different modes of transport – without the need to unpack the cargo.

Sea-Land Shipping gradually gained in acceptance and popularity and with help from the US Military, in 1969, McLean sold his remaining stock in the company for $160 million – although he still had his shipping – or ISO – container patents.

By the late 1970s, McLean’s standardised shipping containers had been accepted all over the world and were on their way to be a widely accepted and preferred method of transporting cargo globally. In 1999, Sea-Land was acquired by Maersk.

ISO Containers – Now and in the Future

It has taken many years for the perfection of the shipping containers which we know and love today to fully form. And it is us today who are reaping the rewards.

Not only can we enjoy the ease of transferring cargo between different modes of transport, but they are also extremely space-efficient, both of which mean that our cargo can be moved around the world quickly – and, importantly, inexpensively. In fact, it is partly due to the existence of ISO containers that we have a global economy – and goods imported and exported around the world.

Another bonus that we are seeing is the ability to customise used and new ISO containers to create temporary spaces which can be used for everything from housing to exhibition stands, to pop-up cafes. Their almost Lego-like qualities, along with their ability to withstand harsh weather and the fact that they lend themselves well to being customised mean that ISO containers can now be a low cost and sustainable option for different spaces.

It is true to say that shipping containers have changed the way that the world operates – by enabling smoother trading between countries through creating sustainable space solutions. And that’s only so far. It’s exciting to think about what the future of shipping containers holds for us all…

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