Cargo Shipping History: Intermodal Containers

 

Almost any product you buy has been shipped at one point or another, and often, inside of an intermodal container (also commonly referred to simply as a shipping container). From everyday purchases you make at the drug store to the car you drive to get there, every type of good that’s bought and sold has to be transported from one point to another. In this blog post, we take a look at the history of one of the most popular methods of moving goods around the world: intermodal containers.

The widespread use of standardized containers meant that cargo could be handled in larger quantities and tracking could be automated. Freight could be moved more quickly and warehousing was less of an issue in the process of getting in and out of ports was sped up. Container shipping really took off during World War II and was a major factor in the U.S. economic boom that followed it.

To learn more about the history of shipping and intermodal containers, visit this resource from Hofstra University.

Overview – The implementation of shipping containers (also called intermodal containers) revolutionized the global transport industry between World War II and the 1970s. Not only did it make domestic and international trade more efficient and cost-effective, but it also helped pushed national and worldwide standards within the transport industry. This set the stage for the development of cargo transport by train and ship and helped ensure that common standards were used for the shipment of any type of goods.

What Is an Intermodal Container? – An intermodal or shipping container is a 20-foot lockable metal container used to move goods from one place to another. Since the containers are locked during shipping and assigned a tracking number, it simplifies the logistics of shipping and receiving goods. The intermodal aspect comes from the fact these containers can easily be moved between different modes of transport. For example, cargo inside a container may be moved by truck, rail or ship, as well as easily moved from one mode of transport to another.

Little Eaton Gangway (Derby Canal Railway) – The Little Eaton Gangway in England was one of the earliest examples of what would later become modern containerized shipping. The delivery route, also known as the Derby Canal Railway, was a wagon trail used to move coal from the mines in Denby to Little Eaton. The shipments had previously been made by pack horses before the construction of the canal. The 5-mile track opened in 1795 and you can view pictures and learn more about it here.


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Growth of the Rail – By 1850s, trains were moving containers on a regular basis, though there was no standard size and containers were not yet covered. Standardization of container sizes, which is essential to the intermodal aspect of transport, was not introduced until 1933 and was not fully integrated until the 1970s.

Modern Intermodal Containers – The modern cargo shipping industry had a watershed moment in 1955 when Malcolm McLean teamed up with Keith Tantlinger to develop metal containers that used a locking mechanism. The containers would eventually become stackable and uniform in size. 1969 saw the introduction of the twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU), which is still the standard used worldwide in the cargo transport industry. By 1970, the International Organization for Standardization had introduced global standards for shipping cargo, which built on those established with the twenty-foot equivalent unit.

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