50th birthday of the shipping container
April 26, 2006 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Happy 50th birthday (bugmenot) to "the box that changed the world". (Video interview with the author, here.) On April 26, 1956, Malcolm McLean, a trucker from rural North Carolina, hired a crane to hoist 58 trailer-sized steel cargo boxes onto a refitted oil tanker. This modest experiment would profoundly alter international trade and the global economy, eventually creating the "biggest real-time datastreaming network in the world."
posted by soiled cowboy (27 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd like to thank the boxes.
posted by jefbla at 9:58 AM on April 26, 2006

And so, truckers of the world unite and then attempt to pass each other going uphill in a two lane road.

At least I have a name to curse in the future.
posted by Atreides at 10:05 AM on April 26, 2006

Malcolm McLaren invented containers AND the Sex Pistols?

Wow. Who knew?
posted by kcds at 10:10 AM on April 26, 2006

Malcom McLaren's brithday? how exciting! I can hardly contain myself
posted by wumpus at 10:28 AM on April 26, 2006

oh no, i see, it's not his birthday... its his idea's birthday. right.
posted by wumpus at 10:30 AM on April 26, 2006

So he sold the company for $800,000,000 and then promptly died. How efficient.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2006

This was really cool, thanks! I have always been a bit amazed that such a simple idea of containerization could have such a big impact on the world economy. Without it, there would be no Walmarts or Targets.

Incidentally, check out How Much is Inside a Container.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:46 AM on April 26, 2006

Think of it as a physical internet - with 20 and 40 foot packets, and great big routers...

Wow. Thanks! This is really cool.
posted by JB71 at 11:27 AM on April 26, 2006

They make great homes too.

Whenever I spy a container ship coming into San Francisco Bay, I can't help but think "floating apartment complex! Woo!"

Someday. Someday...
posted by sfslim at 11:29 AM on April 26, 2006

I had no idea, I never even considered that one man might have invented modern container shipping. Totally interesting.
posted by OmieWise at 11:46 AM on April 26, 2006

And you can live in them too!
posted by beerbajay at 12:15 PM on April 26, 2006

Hell, up until now it never occurred to me that such a thing might require inventing...
posted by five fresh fish at 12:24 PM on April 26, 2006

Don't know why I find this interesting, but then again I don't know why I found the L.A. River totally engrossing.
posted by everichon at 12:25 PM on April 26, 2006

Since containerisation put Marlon Brando and his buddies from "On the Waterfront" out of work, can I therefore deduce that Mr Mclean is to blame for "Missouri Breaks" & "Last Tango in Paris"? Gee, thanks a lot man!
posted by wavespy at 1:26 PM on April 26, 2006

it's funny because i work in a library devoted to transportation, and i actually got mildly excited about this. then i read an article from TRAINS magazine that claims container shipping started in the yukon a year ealier. what is a logistician supposed to do?
posted by kendrak at 3:11 PM on April 26, 2006

Kendrak, is that article you refer to online? I'd like to read it but I couldn't find it from your link.
posted by soiled cowboy at 3:23 PM on April 26, 2006

soiled cowboy, the link is the first page of the article. there should be a "next page" link above the scan of the cover of the article. the article is mostly about the white pass & yukon route, but there is a brief section about container shipping for the mining industry back in the day.
posted by kendrak at 5:00 PM on April 26, 2006

great post! I never even really thought about the 'before' when it comes to container shipping.
posted by tiamat at 6:13 PM on April 26, 2006

Just had a time warp moment: Near the beginning of that Wired article, the author states the shipping volume of Singapore and offers for comparison, "That's the same as shifting around one of New York's World Trade Center towers each day."

I thought that was just a little insensitive til I realized the article was written Oct '99. What a difference a century makes.

As for the topic at hand, I actually do get excited learning more about the infrastructure of modern life.
posted by tritisan at 6:16 PM on April 26, 2006

Container Ports (via WorldMapper):

Territory size shows the proportion of all shipping containers being loaded and unloaded there.
There are more shipping containers loaded and unloaded off the coasts and rivers of China, than travel to or from all other territories put together.
"Mao claimed that China’s industrial output could overtake that of the United States and Britain within fifteen years." Jung Chang, 1991
More details—to keep those capitalist dogs running—in the recent Asia Times article, Chinese Shipping Aims for Global Leadership.
posted by cenoxo at 7:09 PM on April 26, 2006

Y'know, I gotta figure the Chinese government has hired some of the best minds in the business to figure out how their country can come out on top a hundred years from now.

I also figure that our Western nations have, at best, a ten year plan.

We are so screwed.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:23 PM on April 26, 2006

There are more shipping containers loaded and unloaded off the coasts and rivers of China, than travel to or from all other territories put together.

Wait. So, China is shipping zillions of tons of stuff to itself? I guess I can imagine that, but seriously? Is China shipping more shipping containers from China to China than every other country in the world is shipping to each other and to themselves?
posted by JekPorkins at 7:27 PM on April 26, 2006

Thanks, kendrak. I didn't realize that was the article itself. That's a fascinating piece of information buried in there. If it's indeed factual it would seem that that small railroad company beat Malcolm McLean to the standardized container concept by about two years. I wonder if the historian who wrote the book linked to in the FPP knows about this? And I wonder if there were other containerization programs going on elsewhere that were similarly overshadowed?
posted by soiled cowboy at 7:38 PM on April 26, 2006

Jek, the PDF poster of the Container Ports map shows that the green countries represent East Asia, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and North/South Korea. Regarding China's container shipping:
...at least half of all container shipping in the world appears to serve China’s domestic market, be from ship to ship, or consist of part-finished goods being transported along the coast or downriver.
The data source is the World Bank report, World Development Indicators 2005 (see Section 5 - States and Market, Table 5.9 - Transport Services.) Gotta ramp up the old homeland before taking over the rest of the world, perhaps.
posted by cenoxo at 8:35 PM on April 26, 2006

It is expensive to ship empty containers back, and we have nothing to put in the containers and ship to China. So the empty containers are piling up in America.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:48 PM on April 26, 2006

So, China is shipping zillions of tons of stuff to itself?

This could indicate that China's highway system needs much improvement, but they're working on that, too. From the January 29, 2006 USA Today article, China's Highways Go the Distance:
...highway construction underway in China, which is in the midst of the greatest road-building boom since the United States began linking the Lower 48 with interstate highways in the 1950s.

Today, China is stitching itself together with concrete and asphalt. Its goal: highways that reach all 31 provinces — from the Himalayas of Tibet in the southwest to the Gobi Desert in the north.

Already, China's expressway network is second only to America's. "No other country can compete with China when it comes to the expansion speed of road building," says Wang Yuanqing, a professor at the Highway College of Chang'an University in Xian.
Which is one reason why they are projected to consume 44% of the world's cement by 2008.

Truly a juggernaut on wheels.
posted by cenoxo at 6:12 AM on April 27, 2006

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