The Origin of the Storage Container

By Sarah Hughes on 12 May 2022

the origin of the storage container

Ever wondered how and why the storage container came about?

Before storage containers, items which needed to be transported and stored around the world were manually handled into wooden crates, barrels and sometimes even wrapped in sheets. Labourers would move these from one vessel to another, trying to ensure all the items would fit with their varying sizes and shapes. As you can imagine this would have been very time consuming, costly, unreliable, and tiring.

In the 1700s the coal industry needed to find a more robust way of transporting their goods via horse drawn carriages and canal barges. This is where the thought of containers came in and by the 1830s, they evolved into wooden and iron boxes which could be transported by train. In the early 1900s, closed containers were manufactured to aid in the transport of these boxes between road and rail.

The use of containers to ship much needed large supplies became very important to the military during World War II and the Korean War. For added security the U.S Military began to use 8’6”x6’3”x6’10” steel containers. 

This inspired Malcolm McLean, a trucking company owner, with the concept of using metal shipping containers for commercial use and on 26th April 1956 where the world’s first container ship was born. On her maiden voyage, SS Ideal X, carried 58 containers from New Jersey to Texas. Although the containers were larger than those used by the military, they were still able to be transported by truck or train when they reached port. Shortly after, the first ship designed to purely carry shipping containers, Maxton, was made. This ship could carry 60 shipping containers as deck cargo.

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Malcom McClean worked with an engineer, Keith Tantlinger, to develop the modern container. The container they designed was 8ft by 10ft with a twist lock mechanism at each of the top four corners to facilitate movement with cranes.

The global industry adopted this method of transportation. To ensure that McLean’s shipping containers could be transported globally and handled at every port, it was deemed necessary for all metal containers to be built to a specific standard. After much deliberation an international standard was agreed, ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation), which set the shipping container lengths at 10’, 20’, 30’ and 40’, with a width of 8’, and a height of 8’6”. 

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By the end of the century container ships were transporting approximately 90% of the world’s cargo, providing an opportunity for fast and safe delivery of goods, every day.

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