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The Incredible History Of Shipping Container That Will Amaze You

If you have ever wondered how the history of shipping container came to be, this article is for you. The shipping container is probably one of the most profitable and cost-effective inventions. 

But before being widely implemented, it took some great minds to come together and make one of the most incredible ideas in the transportation industry a reality.

The Inventor of the Shipping Container

Malcolm McLean, largely credited with inventing the shipping container, worked as a road hauler. He began his career as a truck driver. 

His parents were unable to afford to send him to college. They did, however, have enough money to purchase a used truck. McLean Trucking Co. was started in 1935 by McLean, his brother, and his sister.

In 1956, McLean sold his trucking company. Soon after, he obtained the Pan Atlantic Tanker Company by exploiting a legal loophole. 

McLean understood everything there was to know about road haulage and nothing about shipping. 

Therefore he had to learn quickly. McLean later changed the company’s name to Sea-Land Shipping.

McLean, who now owned two WWII oil tankers, began transforming them into the world’s first container ships. 

The SS Ideal X was the first. She carried 58 containers from New Jersey to Texas on her maiden voyage as a container ship in April 1956.

How was the Shipping Container Developed?

The first ISO container was born in 1956 after a series of testing. It was stackable and made of steel. 

The reinforced corners allowed the containers to be stacked without causing damage. They were homogeneous in size, theft-resistant, and simple to load.

Dockworkers, known as longshoremen at the time, went on strike. They recognized that loading containers onto ships would necessitate a smaller staff. This pause allowed McLean to fine-tune his plans.

McLean’s bold new idea was a hit, he worked out a deal with the New York Port Authority to turn the New Jersey side of the harbor into a container port. Over the next ten years, the company would expand steadily.

History of Shipping Container

Malcolm McLean, an American entrepreneur, invented the intermodal transport container in 1956, and it has since transformed shipping and worldwide trade. 

Malcolm had been wondering for years how he might load his trucking company’s full cargo aboard a shipping vessel as swiftly and efficiently as possible. 

He began working on the world’s first shipping container with engineer Keith Tantlinger. It was a fantastic invention that reduced wasted space and saved up to three weeks of unloading time. 

The shipping container was the most significant change since it allowed cargo to be transported smoothly between road, rail, and sea.

In 1956, the world’s first container ship, the ‘Ideal X,’ a converted World War II tanker, sailed from Newark to Houston. It was capable of transporting 58 shipping containers. 

This idea was standardized as a standard box by the International Standards Organization in 1968. The box measured 20 feet long, 8 feet high, and 8 feet wide. 

Ships were subsequently totally redesigned around the proportions of boxes from then on! 

Shipping costs have fallen dramatically, making it cheaper to manufacture items on the other side of the world. 

It has since transformed ports, rail networks, ships, towns, and countries around the globe. The shipping container has been the most critical driver of globalization.

The Economist claims that “the shipping container has been a greater driver of globalization than all trade agreements combined in the last 50 years.”

Modern commercial vessels can transport over 20,000 TEU shipping containers (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units). 

About 20 million cargo containers “on the water” are traveling between countries worldwide. 

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Most consumers are unaware of or appreciate that over 90% of purchased items are currently delivered inside a shipping container.

Before Shipping Container

For thousands of years, humans have been moving commodities across the seas. 

As individuals traveled over the world, they brought back to trade commodities that had never been seen before, such as materials, jewels, and food. 

However, unlike today, when commodities are properly packaged and placed into secure shipping containers on massive container ships, the shipping procedure was not simple back then. 

It was, instead, challenging, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. Individually loading and unloading items, whether in a sack, wooden box, or barrel, was difficult as dockworkers manually maneuvered merchandise into whatever space they could find. 

In addition to being sluggish and inconvenient, the risk of theft or damage was much higher than it is today.

The sluggish process of transferring cargo from trains to ships and vice versa caused significant delays at ports, with some vessels needing up to a week to unload and reload, some ships would spend more time in port than at sea! 

The industry was clamoring for a better way to move goods, and the lack of a consistent process had become a serious problem. 

Even though shippers used boxes to move and handle products, the idea of employing boxes on a much greater scale did not originate until the latter half of the twentieth century.

Types Of Shipping Containers 

Here are several  types of the most popular shipping container:

Dry Storage Shipping Container

a single sample of the Dry Storage Shipping Container
Courtesy: IndiaMart

This type is primarily used for storing dry goods such as grains or sugar. They have no doors or windows and come in different sizes according to their capacity.

Flat Rack Container

These containers are designed for transporting heavy equipment, such as machinery or vehicles, over long distances. They are made from high-strength steel with a flat top and open sides, making them easier to load than other containers.

Open-top Container

Open-top containers are often used for shipping product samples or samples that need to be inspected before being sold at retail outlets worldwide. 

Depending on their capacity, they come in varying sizes, but most have no doors or windows, so they must be loaded from above-using forklifts, trucks, or helicopters.

Tunnel Shipping Container

The tunnel container is essentially an elongated version of the standard shipping container. 

This type of metal box has a curved roof that makes it possible to stack them onto one another. 

Malcolm McLean built the first tunnel container in 1956 and owned Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation. 

The design was inspired by the whalebacks during WWII when the US Navy employed it.

Open-side Storage Shipping Container

This metal box is typically used for transporting goods on trucks or trains. These containers have no doors or windows but ramps or hydraulic lifts for loading and unloading vehicles. 

They are usually cheaper than closed versions because there are fewer features included with this type of cargo carrier. 

However, they also offer less protection against weather and theft because they do not have doors or walls like other types of metal boxes.

Double Doors Container

This is the most popular type of shipping container. It is commonly known as a 20-foot or 40-foot container. These containers have only one door on one side of the container.

Refrigerated ISO Containers

A photo example of Refrigerated ISO Containers
Courtesy: BSL Interchange

This shipping container has insulated walls and double doors. They are ideal for shipping frozen or temperature-sensitive products. 

The double doors allow you to load and unload products faster than regular containers, which only have one entry on one side of the container.

Open-top Shipping Containers

This type of shipping container has an open-top design, so there are no doors on the top or sides of the unit. 

These units are used for transporting items that cannot be damaged by exposure to weather conditions such as rain or snowfall, such as sand or gravel for construction projects or wood chips for landscaping projects.

Insulated or Thermal Shipping Container

These are usually used for food products like ice cream and dairy. They are insulated to maintain the temperature inside. 

They come in different sizes and can be customized according to the size and number of pallets required.


Tanks store liquids, including hazardous materials such as chemicals, oil, and fuels.

The tanks come with different capacities depending on how much liquid you want to store in them and how long you need to store it.

Cargo Storage Roll Containers 

These are typically used by businesses that need to store large amounts of inventory but don’t have enough space at their location or don’t want to invest in building a warehouse yet. 

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A cargo storage roll container can be placed outside your business premises or inside, depending on its size and what you need it for.

Standard Shipping Container

The standard size is 8 x 20 feet (approximately 2.4m x 6m), but other sizes are also available. 

This type is often used for international shipping or storing goods on ships and trains, though it can be used for other purposes.

Half-height Containers

These are smaller versions of standard containers and are generally used to transport goods between warehouses or short distances. 

They can also be kept on top of one another to create storage space at large events like concerts or festivals.

Car Carriers

A shipping container with cars inside ready to be shipped to different places

These containers serve as mobile garages for vehicles during transport by sea or air, allowing them to remain safe while transported worldwide. 

They generally come with a door on each side so that cars can be driven into them without having to uncouple them from their trailers and then reattach them once they reach their destination.

Intermediate Bulk Shift Containers

These are the most common type of shipping containers. They measure 8 feet wide, 8 feet, 6-inches tall, and 48 feet long. 

These are used for hauling things like construction equipment and chemicals.


These are also known as steel drums, chemical drums, or food-grade drums. 

They’re usually made from recycled steel and are used primarily for liquids and solids that can’t be stored in other containers. 

Depending on what you’re shipping, drums come in various sizes from 5 gallons to 55 gallons. You can even find them in larger sizes if needed.

Special-purpose Containers

There are many other shipping containers with specialized purposes. For example, swap bodies (also called swap bodies) have a single door on one end and two doors on the other, with ramps connecting them. 

These boxes can be moved by forklifts or cranes, allowing them to move around easily while still allowing access through all four sides of the box. 

Swap bodies can be used for various applications, including warehousing, storage, and distribution centers.

Importance Of Shipping Containers 

There are many reasons why shipping containers are important in today’s world:

Shipping Container Is Environmentally Friendly 

Shipping containers are built to withstand weather conditions worldwide, so they will last for decades without rusting or rotting away like other types of building materials would do. 

They also don’t require much maintenance once you install them in your yard or business location because they don’t require any special care aside from cleaning them up occasionally.

They Are Affordable 

Shipping containers are very reasonable, especially compared to other storage units. 

This means that they will not cost you much, which means you can save money on other things like transportation.

Shipping Container Is Portable 

Shipping containers can be moved easily from one place to another because they have wheels and axles attached. 

This makes transporting them easy from one location to another without hassle.

They Are Versatile 

Shipping containers come in different sizes, so you can select the one that suits your needs perfectly. 

You can modify them any way you want by adding windows or doors or installing plumbing systems. 

This makes them highly versatile, flexible, and durable enough for long-term use.

Shipping Containers Are Durable 

One of the main reasons shipping containers are so popular is their durability. They’re made from strong steel and can withstand much abuse during transport. 

Some reports claim that these metal boxes can withstand up to 500,000 drops onto concrete without damage!

What Is The Maximum Number Of Containers That A Ship Can Carry?

The size of a ship and the number of containers it can carry depends on the type of vessel. 

A feeder’s vessel carries between 80 and 300 TEUs, while the main vessel carries between 400 and 1,200 TEUs. 

The largest container ships can carry up to 2,500 TEUs.

Innovative Ways To Use A Shipping Container

There are many ways to use a shipping container. Here are 10 of the most interesting and innovative uses for shipping containers:

Portable Office Shipping Container

A portable office is an idea that has been around for a long time, but it is still a great way to get a small office space without renting or buying one. 

It can be put up quickly and taken down just as easily. It’s also a good way to get extra space if you have an unexpected guest coming over or need more room for your growing business.

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Greenhouse Shipping Container

Greenhouses can be expensive to buy and install, but they don’t have to be! You can make your greenhouse using an old shipping container, which can help you save money while also helping you grow your fruits and vegetables year-round in any climate.

Outdoor Kitchen

In the past, if you wanted an outdoor kitchen, you had to have a beautiful patio or deck built to have one. 

But now, with shipping containers, you can have your own outdoor kitchen made out of a shipping container. This type of kitchen will last many years and add value to your home.

Studio Apartment

You can turn a shipping container into a studio apartment for the elderly or disabled family members who need help with daily activities such as dressing, bathing, and eating. 

This setup is perfect for anyone who wants to live independently but cannot take care of themselves due to health problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

 It also allows them to feel independent while still having someone around when they need assistance with daily activities.

Air Conditioning Unit

An air conditioner unit built out of a shipping container is perfect for those who want to keep their homes cool during the hot summer months without having to pay high utility bills every month during those months when it gets extremely hot outside! This is also great if you rent your property because it won’t cost much each month.

Garage Or Workshop

A shipping container can be turned into your garage or workshop. Suppose you don’t have room for one in your backyard. 

This is an excellent way to create your own space without having to invest in expensive construction materials. You’ll need some tools if you want to build one yourself, but it’s not too hard if you follow instructions carefully.

Playhouse Or Treehouse 

If you have kids who love to play outside, this idea will make them very happy! A shipping container can be turned into a playhouse or treehouse that they’ll love spending time in during the summer months (or whenever they want). 

This is also an excellent way to get them involved in building projects with you, they’ll enjoy watching their new clubhouse come together piece by piece as much as playing inside once it’s finished!

Garden Shed Or Tool Shed

Homeowners can now create a garden shed from shipping containers at a fraction of the cost of conventional options. 

The benefits include being able to customize the size and shape of your storage space, as well as choosing an exterior finish that suits your style.

Swimming Pool Or Hot Tub Enclosure

If you are looking for an affordable alternative to building a pool house, consider using a shipping container as your swimming pool enclosure. 

Container pools help save construction costs while creating a fun and unique design element for your backyard.


If you’re thinking about building a house with all the bells and whistles, then shipping containers might be a good choice. 

They’re cheap and easy to work with, which means that they help keep construction costs down significantly compared to conventional home construction methods.

How The Shipping Container Changed The World

The globe has evolved drastically in the previous century, and shipping containers are one of the biggest reasons. 

The container was invented in 1956 by Malcolm McLean, who founded Sea-Land Service Inc. 

He used empty steel tanks lying around to build a prototype that could carry 17 tons of cargo and be stacked on top of one another on ships.

In the years since, this invention has drastically transformed the shipping industry. 

It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of goods in Europe are shipped using containers, which helps explain why they’re so popular with businesses worldwide.

Here are ways that shipping containers have changed our lives:


Shipping containers have become a popular way to build homes in urban areas. 

The design of these homes is very different from traditional houses and apartments, but they can be just as comfortable. 

Some people even say they prefer them to traditional housing.


Shipping containers have also revolutionized transportation. They’re used on ships, trains, and trucks worldwide. 

They’re also used in construction projects to build temporary structures such as offices or stores while permanent ones are built.

They Make International Trade Easier

Containers can be carried by any size of ship or plane, from supertankers to jetliners, so you don’t need to worry about how much space your shipment takes up on board. 

This makes it easier for companies to import goods from other countries and export them from their own country, leading to increased trade between nations.

They Help Protect Against Theft and Damage During Transit

When goods are packed into boxes before being shipped abroad, they’re less vulnerable to theft or damage during transit because they’re easy for customs officers to inspect at every stage of their transportation.


The history of shipping container is incredible one. Shipping containers are the backbone of the international shipping industry, and the foundation on much of the freight-moving infrastructure has been built. 

Of course, these humble boxes have also helped shape numerous industries beyond international trade. 

While they have a dark side or two, overall, their story is one of innovation, technological advancement, and simplification. 

And as a young engineer in my early twenties, this is pretty exciting to think about. It can be easy to look at historical inventions with nostalgic reverence. 

Still, it’s also easy to forget how much impact even a simple technological development can have on our lives.

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