The humble steel shipping container may not seem like a revolutionary force but the fact is, that’s exactly what they are. Since their invention in the 1950s, they have changed the world we live in, and without them it’s entirely possible that society would look very different today.
International Trade Made Speedy
The biggest change that shipping containers have made is in globalisation. Today, if we want to order something from halfway around the world, we can do so with ease. A few clicks on the computer, and our international order can arrive on our doorstep in as little as a few days. You may attribute this to the internet, and yes, that’s a factor, but it all began with the shipping container.
Before the shipping container became standard, everything that needed to be shipped internationally had to be loaded onto ships or planes on individual pallets. Thousands of dock workers were employed daily to load and unload ships, and the process took a long time.
Once a standardised shipping container was adopted internationally, however, the goods could instead be loaded into those containers, and the containers could be quickly loaded by cranes and stacked securely. Not only did this make the process of loading and unloading ships much quicker, but it also meant that they could carry ever-larger loads.
As a result, the speed of international trade was vastly increased, particularly in the case of consumer goods and commodities. Without the shipping container, you could have been waiting a long time for that international order to arrive.
The shipping container was also responsible for more localised changes in port towns. Where once a huge workforce of longshoremen was required to load and unload the ships, now it could be done by a much smaller force operating the cranes. The piers used for loading bulk cargo were no longer suitable, and large holding lots were required for the containers. This effect is exemplified by San Francisco, which all but ceased functioning as a commercial port whilst the neighbouring port of Oakland boomed; in the UK, the ports in Liverpool and London declined while Felixstowe expanded.
It’s not only in the world of cargo transport that shipping containers have had an impact. They’ve also successfully been used to create affordable housing, offices, and even shops. Thanks to their ready availability and standard dimensions, they’re easy to design for, transport and install, making them affordable and quick to set up. In the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, shipping containers were used to build barriers protecting houses and pedestrians from falling debris, to house workers in the hardest-hit areas, and even to rebuild the local shopping mall.