Regardless of the intended use for a shipping container, few would disagree that it is a reliable, safe and secure innovation with myriad logistical, industrial and personal applications. And as with many of the greatest inventions in the world, the shipping container is built on a very simple concept: one developed surprisingly recently.

Key advantages of shipping containers include the fact that they are portable between different modes of transport and can be stacked efficiently due to their standardised shapes and sizes.

However, although containers were invented for the easy transportation of cargo, this is also what makes them so suitable for many different uses today – and why more and more people choose to rent or buy a shipping container for their projects.

Just as a shipping container will have been on a journey from manufacturer through to a specific site, the humble shipping container has also travelled a long way from its invention as a means of standardising containers for shipping, to the array of innovative applications it boasts today.

The Invention of Shipping Containers

Shipping containers were invented by a truck driver from North Carolina, USA – Malcom McLean, in 1937. His idea – known as the ‘big box’ idea – came about when he was waiting for hours to unload his cargo of cotton bales at a pier in New Jersey.

McLean is quoted as saying: “Suddenly it occurred to me: Would it not be great if my trailer could simply be lifted up and placed on the ship without its contents being touched?”.

Over time the shipping container was developed and modified, at first to be used by rail, and then to incorporate other modes of transport, mainly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. McLean’s major motivation was that he believed that the use of shipping containers could make the whole process of transporting goods more efficient – both financially and practically.

The Development of Shipping Containers

When McLean put his ideas into practice and bought a Word War II tanker, which he converted into a cargo ship which was made to fit his shipping containers in 1956, his ship carried 58 metal containers and 15,000 tonnes of petroleum on its maiden voyage. The ship sailed from Newark to Houston, but even before the ship had been fully unloaded in Houston, the company was already taking orders for shipping on the return journey.

According to Jeroen de Haas, author of ‘Gard Guidance on Freight Containers`, “Loading loose cargo on a medium-sized cargo ship cost $5.83 per tonne in 1956. McLean’s experts calculated that the cost of loading the Ideal X [McLean’s ship] at 15.7 cents per tonne. With numbers like that, the container seemed to have a future.”

In the beginning, the container was loaded onto ships along with the chassis, but over time, the shipping containers were developed to be loaded without the chassis, giving more storage space and to enable them to be stacked easily.

Since then, the use of shipping containers has become the norm for cargo ships being used for both commercial and personal use around the world, and we are now seeing them used for a much wider range of functions from private storage to bars and cafes.