The History of the Shipping Container

The History of the Shipping Container

26 April 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Ideal X and the birth of modern container shipping, a development that played a critical role in spurring the global economy.

One visionary, Malcom McLean, features prominently in the industry’s development.

But the modern shipping container has changed much more than one industry. It has radically transformed supply chains, fundamentally changed domestic and international economies across the world, and changed societies in the process – all the while driving trillions dollars in annual trade.

Here’s how it happened.

For centuries the expense, risk, and frustration with ocean freight held back expansion of the international economy, despite the invention of the steam invention. Break-bulk loaded cargo was poorly secured required a Tetris-like approach to handle diverse sizes of packages. Loading and unloading was particularly troublesome. Risks include delays, pilfering, damage and loss.

Did You Know That …

Early examples of intermodal containers include railroads from 1830s (various sized containers), and Pennsylvania Railroad regular container service (1929).


Following McLean’s patent, containerized shipping saw a series of firsts from 1956, as container services expand to become international, transatlantic, and transpacific. From 1968, with intermodal container shipping proven, the container fleet rapidly expands.

Did You Know That …

It wasn’t just about freight. A patent was filed in 1962 for using shipping containers as touring exhibition booths.


Expansion: The 1970s

Once the concept was validated,the container shipping industry grew exponentially in the 70s and 80s. By 1973, US, European and Asian container ship operators are carrying 4 million TEUs. Export manufacturing starts moving away from ports.

Did You Know That …

In the early 1970s, UK architect Nicholas Lacey writes his thesis about converting shipping containers into habitable dwellings.

Ports: The 1980s

90% of countries have container ports, up from 1% in 1966. By 1983, container ships are carrying 12 million TEUs, with trade routes extending to the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

Did You Know That …

In 1989, the world’s largest shopping mall built from shipping containers, with 16,000 vendors, opens in Odessa, USSR.


Global Trade Takes Off: The 1990s

More types of goods are traded economically, and much manufacturing is transferring to developing economies. The rapidly developing Chinese economy rescues hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens from poverty.

Did You Know That …

In 1994, a BBC series is made on the conversion of shipping containers for office space, the first mass media exposure of the concept of using containers for other purposes.



International supply chains grow more intricate and inclusive, supporting the growth of e-commerce.

Did You Know That …

The first of 14 residential shipping container complexes now built in the UK is completed in 2001.


 The 2010s

By 2013, 90% of global trade is seaborne, shipped in 700 million containers every year. In 2014, the shipping ports of America received $1.73 trillion worth of goods.

Did You Know That …

In 2010, Freight Farms establishes the first use of containers for agriculture. Containers are now also re-purposed for disaster relief, and even backdrops for K-pop videos. The tech industry follows suit – Google creates a $35 million boat made of shipping containers that uses shipping containers for servers that power the tech giant’s search capabilities.


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