My brother received a new shipment today which came in one of the smaller international shipping containers. These fantastic steel boxes are one of the most under appreciated foundations of modern trade. For centuries shipments moving from country to country, or from one mode of transportation to another, had to be transferred from one type of storage container to another.
A standard 40 long container
Even within nations different shipping companies might utilize dozens of different types of incompatible storage systems. After many compromises between various international and domestic shipping companies, a mutually beneficial standard was agreed on in the late 60’s. It’s noteworthy that the evolution of these standards came from the mutually beneficial result to all shipping parties and was not the result of government regulation, in fact, the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulatory oversight had to be curtailed in order for these standards to become fully integrated, the ICC oversight was later abolished.
Cargo containers loaded onto deep well rail cars
The original containers standard was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube, and later 20 and 40 foot versions were adopted. Today numerous additional heights and lengths have been adopted. Some even come with drop down legs so they can transfer between trucks without the use of a crane. The containers are constructed of corrugated steel and inside are lined with numerous fastening points and rails for adjustable height multi level storage.
Shipping Containers loaded onto Semi’s
The standard 8x20 container has an area of 160 square feet, about the size of a large living room, and volume of 1,170 cubic feet. The container weighs 4,850 lbs but can be loaded with almost 15 times that, or 60,000 lbs. Single containers can be easily moved between sea going shipping vessels, cargo trains, and semi-trailer trucks. At the corners of each container is a reinforced cube of steel with holes on each outer face, these cubes can be locked quickly and securely together with simple twist locks. These also enable containers to be stacked on top of each and locked together without extra fastening harnesses, the containers can be stacked 7 units high.
Hundreds of containers at a busy port
Immense fast moving cranes have evolved at busy ports to handle the shipping containers. Most pick up single containers only, using four latches which have twist locks in them. A single container can be locked, picked up, moved, and loaded onto a train or truck in just about a few minutes. Often cranes sit on rails of their own so they can move up and down the length of a ship.
Video of crane in operation (sped up)
And then view from the crane loading onto a ship
Multiple cranes at port (notice the compound wheels at the bottom)
Newer crane designs allow up to four containers to be unloaded at one time. Today almost 90% of cargo moves by these containers stacked on transport ships, some 18 million containers make over 200 million trips every year. The largest of sea shipping vessels can carry 14,000 of the large 20 foot containers. At 1300 ft in length, one of the largest, the Emma Maersk, is more than 33% longer than the 882 foot Titanic was but at twice the width it has almost 3 times the volume.
Video of the Emma Maersk Loaded
In 2007 the worlds busiest container shipping port was Singapore which moved 28,000 twenty foot equivalent containers. Take a look at this satellite photo of one of it’s busiest terminal areas, all the shipping vessels, containers, cranes, and ships are clearly visible, and the notion of how ubiquitous and important these containers are becomes clear.
Singapore - Worlds busiest container port 2007
And all the ships in the harbor
Most economists predicted some improvements in trade with standardized containers, but none even remotely anticipated the actual result or that the containers themselves which now direct transportation evolution. Cargo in ports could be moved nearly 20 times faster and the resulting shipping infrastructure is now so streamlined and efficient across the world that frozen shrimp shipped from the far east have a lower carbon foot print than locally caught and road transported shrimp do and have brought consumers a previously un-imaginable variety of low cost goods from all over the world.
Marc Levinson, economist and author of “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” makes the case that this was one of the most significant yet least noticed economic developments in the world and has in fact been a primary element in enabling globalization itself. Clearly these containers have revolutionized shipping and thus raised the standard of living of every human on the planet tremendously.
The containers are so plentiful, ubiquitous, and inexpensive that it is not often cost effective to ship back an empty one for re-use, so many lie in wait for demand to rise in their local storage area. Because of the plethora of inexpensive used shipping containers around the world (A quick google search and I found two 53’ foot containers in Texas for only $3,000!) there are movements to find other creative uses for them, though naturally most zoning boards would object on purely aesthetic grounds.
10 Shipping Container Homes -
A container Condo –
An Office park (Love that cantilevered overhang)
Rumors are the Travelodge will start using them in hotel construction, and Sun Microsystems made a splash in the technology sector when it unveiled a portable self contained data center housed in one that could be delivered globally in hours.
It’s ironic that this is not the first time international shipping had been so standardized and efficient. In the 1800’s the celebrated poet John Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” celebrating the beauty of these relics of antiquity.
Grecian Urn or Amphora
These Urns though deserve immense appreciation on a level beyond their beauty; they were the standardized international shipping containers of the Greek and Roman era and contributed as much, relatively, to the prosperity of those societies are our containers do today, in fact the high standards of living the average Roman enjoyed at the height of the Roman Empire would not be matched until the industrial revolution of the1800’s, and the Grecian Urn played a large role in this. Used in great quantities from the 15th century BC to shortly after the fall of the Roman empire in the 7th century AD (when extensive trade collapsed) these ceramic jars are the most commonly found relic of antiquity, and some lost in old ship wrecks still contain their well preserved cargo. It is rumored that the famed marine archaeologist Jacque Cousteau found one still sealed containing 2,000 year old wine, and tried it.
It should seem obvious how useful cargo container standardization was but it took almost 1500 years for it to be re-invented, and then with much resistance. One wonders what other advances await standardized shipping, and what new kinds of markets and goods it will enable. Standardized shipping container carriers are still limited by barriers like port depths, train tunnels, and road bridges – these containers have not yet penetrated the sky. Will we someday cargo trains of the sky and ubiquitous same day international shipping? And will poets of the 4th millennia write appreciative verse when gazing upon the archeological remains of sunken steel shipping containers?