back to article The amazing shipping container: How it changed the world

Keith Tantlinger has just died. He's someone you almost certainly haven't heard of and someone who – along with Malcolm McLean (no, not McLaren) – changed our world to the extent that it would have been almost unrecognisable to our forefathers. They also – if you want to squint at it – made the European Union redundant six …


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  1. gribbler

    Port B

    "Beijing, Brisbane, Brindisi and Birmingham, they're really all just nodes on the container shipping routes..."

    Maybe Bristol would have been a better example than Birmingham. Still alliterative and it has a container port.

    1. graeme leggett Silver badge


      Notwithstanding the old waterways from London to Brum - aka the Grand Union Canal.

      Chinese container pitches up at Felixstowe, offloaded onto lorry, A14 to Rugby M6 to Brum.

      Those who have traversed the A14 know how much lorried traffic it carries.

    2. Tim Worstal

      True: but railheads and trucks mean you're on the network as well.

    3. fridaynightsmoke

      Brum has container ports;

      Off the top of my head I can think of three dedicated rail container terminals in (or within 15 lorry minutes of) Birmingham.

  2. James Thomas

    The BBC showed a good documentary about this not too long ago. 'The Box That Changed The Worlkd' or something similar.

    1. Tim Worstal


      Indeed, an adaptation of a very good book which has informed but not dictated this piece.

    2. Rob


      Isn't that one where they stuck a GPS on a shipping container and tracked it's cargo and route round the world?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I think you overestimate how much seafreight costs...

    By a significant amount. Weight is very rarely factored in, just container sizily e (20 or 40 ft). You can easily find a company that will ship you a 20ft container with all charges for less than 1k dollars... The main reason being is that export from europe is mainly to reposition empty containers in the far east, and to offset the cost of shipping empty containers. Most shipping lines are running their EU to far east exports at cost, or even a small loss.

    1. Tim Worstal


      There is a weight limitation on a container. It's about what you can put on a truck or a railway flatbed, but it is there. And again, it's the network, not just the ships, which is important. To get from any node, one where a lorry can pick up a container, to another node anywhere else, where a lorry can deliver a container.

      And yes, I know about going east, used those prices to ship scrap metal around. Didn't want to get too complcated though....

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        There is a limit...

        But a container weighing 5 ton will be priced the same as one weighing 20 ton, especially in eu to far east trade.

  4. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    Good read that

    Nice work Tim.

    Sea trade always drives economics forward - case in point: Phonecian traders moving stuff around the Med were always at risk of storms, at which point the captain would tend to throw the nearest thing to hand over the side. To prevent one merchant losing everything, the merchants stocking the ship would agree that any losses would be shared collectively, and the first corporations were born.

    1. blearrgh

      Interesting point

      ... but I think you mean the first partnerships. Corporations were created a lot later so there would be a separate legal entity, meaning that a business going titsup didn't take out all of the proprietors and investors with it.

      Great article. Looking into that Findlay and O'Rourke book now.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's a good indication of the state of the UK's manufacturing sector that the biggest export from Felixstowe is empty containers.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      The air in Felixstowe is a lot cleaner than the air in the East. Export what you've got that they haven't :)

  6. h 2
    Thumb Up

    As already mentioned, the BBC did a good article.

  7. JC_

    Interesting story, shows that anything can be turned into an anti-EU rant.

    1. Intractable Potsherd

      Interesting point, JC_ , but ...

      ... I didn't read as an anti-anything article, and certainly not a "rant". Simply a different view of history that shows that, had things happened to, say, a slightly altered time-scale, the world could be very different.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And the slavery, of course

    Transportation is only part of the change; the willingness to deal with slavers and fascist dictatorships pretending to be communist collectives is another big part of it.

    Cheap / forced labour is as important to the "new" economics as the shipping container.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "And the slavery, of course..."

      Spot on with that assesment.

      And WASN'T "Was it really free trade that screwed America?".

      It was/is greedy corporations who won't pay a decent living wage to American workers...yet can reward their CEOs, & other top management, with obscene yearly compensation & bonus packages...whilst raping workers at their foreign plants.

      What a country...NOT!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Surely therefore it was the greedy consumers who refused to pay over the odd for home produced goods and made the profits for the CEOs & other top management?

        Oh but that doesn't fit into your Daily Mirror style rant sorry.

  9. Lottie


    Great article!

  10. NickW1

    One other improvement the shipping container brought was security - it pretty much put an end to the 'shrinkage' which enhanced the dockers' lifestyle the world over. I seem to recall strikes over extra pay for handling containers which were not explicitly to make good this loss but that was certainly the implication.

  11. Mondo the Magnificent
    Thumb Up

    Living through the box

    BBC aired a fantastic documentary on this very subject a few months back, it was titled "The Box That Changed Britain" (and can still be viewed on BBC iPlayer)

    The hidden parts of the story were brought to light, like how the container minimised damage and theft and greatly reduced insurance premiums, especially for Whiskey exporters.

    However the dockers' trade unions didn't take too kindly the container as it reduced manpower, thus posed a threat to jobs and their refusal to unpack containers at the docks led to the UK's first inland container depot. Containers would be railed or trucked inland, where these massive boxes would be unpacked.

    It was a very enlightening documentary indeed.

    They also made the headlines a few years back in 2007 when the MSC Napoli ran aground and lost some of its containers which washed upon the shores of Dorset sparking a free for all..

    1. Tim Worstal


      A friend ran away to sea (I'm old enough to have friends who did that sort of thing) in the 60s and one export his ship carried was Gordon's gin. First crate to be "loaded" in UK was made up of half bottles. Cracked open and dockers all took their tax.

      First crate unloaded in New York, half bottles again, for the longshoremen.

      "Shrinkage" was so well known that everyone planned for it.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Absolutely brilliant programme...

      ...and one that fascinated me. I encouraged my children to watch it too, to show them what things were like in Britain before containerised goods became common. I recall hearing about dockers' strikes in the early 1970s almost weekly, but once the mid 1970s had passed that too was a phrase that began to disappear as the container ports simply ignored the luddites and went round them.

      If we're now looking at the collapse of the Euro, and perhaps the beginning of the unravelling of the EU, then that box that allowed the fruits of the manufacturing to be moved to China has a lot to do with it.

      A classic case of the law of unintended consequences....

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cost of shipping

    One cost that's not factored in is the cost of protecting the shipping lanes.

    The English and Spanish paid mighty sums to build fleets to protect shipping. Shipping lanes are mostly safe today thanks to the massive naval fleets that patrol the world's oceans... with the notable exception of the horn of Africa. Without blanket protection, how much will shipping costs rise if shippers have to pay for protection?

    And as China builds a more powerful navy, how will their projection of power affect shipping? Will we see more conflicts with neighboring countries, to the point of naval blockades?

    Shipping is cheap as long as there's no loss to piracy or war.

    1. John Savard

      Anyone who is so daft as to interfere with shipping should be dealt with expeditiously so that this kind of thing does not happen very often.

  13. dodge

    ...but ruined the joy of seafaring

    I spent a fair bit of time cooped up in a small desolate town with an old gent that used to be in the merchant navy - and he recons it was shipping containers that changed the nature of a life at sea forever, for the worse.

    You see, it used to have some romance and excitement - your ship would put into harbour, and they'd start to offload, then when that was done load the returning cargo. It was bags, and pallets, and holds full of dry goods to be pumped - it used to take days. In this time, the ship's officers and crew that were not on duty could go into town and take up in a whorehouse, or in this gent's case, spend a few days exploring somewhere exotic.

    Then came containers - an entire large ship could be unloaded and loaded in a few hours, ready to sail on the next tide.

    Sea life then became a dreary succession of weeks on the open water, a day in port, then back out into the blue.

    1. Havin_it

      Bawwwwww. What job isn't less sexy/fun/layabout-friendly now than it was some decades ago?

      On the other hand, I'm impressed you got that long an anecdote out of an ex-merchantman and it was coherent. Was this town so desolate the whisky shipments didn't get through?

    2. Anonymous Coward

      The BBC programme said it best...

      ...with the old ship's master saying "In the old days we used to go ashore and play golf while the dockers unloaded and loaded the ship, now we have to work out if we've got time to go and have lunch...!"

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      that and...

      ...crews from places like the Philippines that are prepared to live like rats, rarely leaving the ships for months on end and getting paid a pittance.

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    So the shipping container is the Penny Black of freight?

    Interesting point.

    BTW containers have an *incredible* mass to load ratio.

    People who think a large structure can't be 1/10 (or *less*) than the load it carries should play *close* attention.

  15. Neil Stansbury

    "The Box That Changed Britain"

    As James Thomas said:

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. Tompkinson

    Tatlinger caused the Credit Crunch

    Sort of. Bear with me on this Tedious Link...

    Containers revolutionised shipping. London dockers didn't like it and striked like it's 1969. Felixtowe, etc. ate their lunch. London docks withered on the vine. My Dad who had worked in the merchant navy and London shipping lost his job, had a nervous breakdown and eventually died at 60 - thanks a bunch Tatlinger. London Docklands Development Corp was formed. We got Canary Wharf, trendy docklands apartments, City Airport, Docklands Light Railway, and London became very attractive for shallow yet ambitious fast buck money grabbers to work in. Thatcher encouraged the "Me" attitude which persists to this day. Fred The Shed and his mates went too far. The rest is history.

  18. chadp

    Rail can be cheaper

    US railroads have been doing a booming business in the last decade - some routes are actually maxed out. The reason? It is cheaper to offload Chinese containers in Long Beach, put it on a train to Charleston, and put it back on a boat to send it to Rotterdam than either to sail it through the Panama Canal or ship by train across Asia.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      wait until they blow up Panama

      I heard that they were planning to increase the size of the Panama canal to be able to hold the supertankers and very large container ships that currently can't pass though it.

      Of course, if the seas keep heating up, the northwest passage will be open year round and be a much, much shorter route to Europe.

      At that point, at least the train traffic into the Port of Los Angeles will drop a bit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Got a kick out of this - a lot comes into Oakland, CA too, then hops the train through Emeryville* to Chicago, to the East Coast, then to wherever.

      *The kick is that I had to wait at a railroad crossing for 10 mins (again) this morning for an ~1mile train** to pass so that I could get to my desk which is all of about 50 feet from said train track

      ** You can estimate the lengths of these trains from their engine count. The short ones have 2, Ive seen ones that have 3-4 at the front and/or 2 at the back. The 5 engine trains, its quicker to take the 2 mile detour to get to the nearest bridge then back around than it is to do the 30 yards across the track into the car park.

  19. Andy Watt

    ...changed the world (until the oil ran out)

    Your title needs a caveat. "forever" ain't forever. The containers need dead dinosaurs to move them about (or, more worryingly, food oil converted into dead-dinosaur substitute).

    The EU could have something of the last laugh, provided it doesn't tear itself apart through idiotic eurocrats planting their fingers in their ears and going "la la la la we can't see greece"...

    Great article though. I'm geeky enough to have looked at the containers on the back of the artic chassis they ride on, and thought how the interlocks worked, and how they were loaded. Someone had to invent it, so good on him.

    1. Chris Miller

      Nuclear cargo vessels (NVs)

      have been around since the 50s. They've never been able to compete commercially with fossil-fuel power, but watch this space. MVs typically burn the cheapest, nastiest form of fuel available - basically the scrapings after all the usable petrol/diesel/fuel oil/jet fuel has been extracted. The pipes that carry the fuel from the tanks to the engines have to be heated, otherwise the fuel remains solid.

      1. Lottie


        Off to wikipedia for me :-)

      2. GrahamT

        Re: Burning Oil

        Burning waste oil in steam ships might have been normal in the 50's when nuclear vessels were first proposed, but current container vessels are diesel, so use similar oil to that used in diesel trains and lorries, but much less per kilometre-tonne. True, the oil companies insist on selling the lines high sulphur diesel, but modern ships have all sorts of exhaust treatment built in. It would be to the bottom line's advantage to use cleaner fuel. Currently many ships are "slow steaming" (though few use steam) to save fuel. There is a big push to make container shipping even greener than it already is.

  20. JaitcH

    So cheap, the Chinese won't pay the shipping charges for 1000 kilometres

    VietNam borders China yet these wondrous boxes are so cheap to manufacture they are not worth the return shipping costs by road, rail or sea if the distance is over 500 kilometres.

    As with most every other country, there are piles of disused freight containers.

    Five 40 foot containers, mounted on concrete pillars, sides cut and welded to form a large area forms the basement of my house for vehicles and storage. Cost under $1,200 + digging the hole, pouring the pillars and welding.

    My mini-hotel is completely constructed from containers; the rooms are factory made modules that slide in. To make the ugly containers look nicer, I had expanded metal grid welded to the outside and sprayed with concrete.

    Three containers will make a cosy, compact, economical home for two.

    1. Intractable Potsherd

      I keep looking ...

      ... at various websites that have shipping-container buildings. It does seem like a very good way to cheaply build a house.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        But then people in the UK don't differentiate between 'somewhere to live' and 'investment oppurtunity', not much money to be made in the resale of a shipping container home.

  21. Pete 43


    When they can be sold off to house the poor ^H^H^H^H^H^H for sustainable housing.

    1. John McCallum

      ....and what beter use for the current worldwide glut of these steel boxes

      1. GrahamT

        "Gluts" are temporary

        World trade is down at the moment, so there is a glut of containers and ships. During the good times, the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers of containers have difficulty keeping up.

        There is constant "wastage" of containers through damage, loss at sea and theft. There are whole villages in Africa made of containers, and we know we haven't sold any of ours there. (I work for a shipping line)

        A container costs from $3000 dollars up, depending on size type and material, so a 3000 TEU vessel is carrying containers worth more than $10 million before you count the cost of the goods inside them.

        Empty repositioning is the bugbear of the shipping industry. A few years ago there was a drastic shortage of containers on the West Coast US and they were running out of storage in the container yards on the East, because the flow of goods was eastward and no one wanted to pay to ship empty containers back by train.

        Nowadays, if you want to ship something from Europe to the Far East, you only need to pay the port handling charges and the fuel costs, the line will basically carry it for free, just to get its empties back were they are needed, with someone else paying for the fuel. That is how recycling companies can afford to ship waste to China for sorting, rather than getting us to sort it at source.

  22. volsano

    Birmingham has an inland port -- you pass in on the train, just south of the city. always piled high with TEUs.

  23. Mark 110

    Thanks all

    Nice article Tim and lots of intelligent comments. Thanks all.

  24. bep

    Not just the boxes also the ships

    None of this would have been possible if there hadn't also been a revolution in ship design that permitted 100,000+ tonne container ships. At the end of WWII a 10,000 tonne ship was a big ship.

    It was also accompanied by a similar revolution in bulk shipping, which permits the coal, iron ore and natural gas etc to be shipped to China in huge ships, to build the products that are put into the containers.

  25. Lars Silver badge

    @Mondo the Magnificent

    Good points, but I would also add that the container destroyed the good looks of ships and when the time in harbour become shorter some of the nice things about being a young sailor wishing to see the world was no longer.

    But this "the rebalancing of production and consumption around the world has led to relative declines in the standard of living of the American working man",

    is a bit like being surprised about "If you eat more than you need you get fat. If you eat less than you need you get ill."

    If you consume more than you produce how could that increase your standard of living in the long run.

    Unless, of course, if you think the standard of living is, say, owing an Ipod.

    This problem with buying more than you can afford is of course equally a problem in the EU.

    Eventually the Chinese will be in the same position but it seems they are already prepared and

    invest a lot in Africa to, perhaps, find the new cheap labour in that direction.

    Perhaps not a bad thing.

  26. P. Lee
    Black Helicopters

    Why we need to think carefully about ecology and quality control

    Sometimes we get out-right bans on products.

    For example, here in Oz we currently (and have for quite some time) pay around $14(£9)/kg for bananas opposed to the 68p/kg I see in Sainsburys online because we grow them here and the growers have managed to get imports banned to prevent pests arriving on the banana boats. It's an ecological issue.

    Similarly, Australia has it's own car safety standard and if you aren't accredited you won't get your car on the road. This is enough of a barrier to reduce the number of car importers to a handful and the price of cars is 1.5-2 times what you'd typically see in Europe. I find it difficult to believe the Oz standards require that much more engineering to meet than the German or Japanese standards. They could have said that Japanese and German standards are good enough, but that wouldn't have propped up the local car industry for so long.

    While adopting obvious tariffs might not do much to stem the flow of cheap goods and services, putting up regulatory barriers to entry can do the job very effectively and lines the pockets of business rather than the government. Such regulation needs to be scrutinised very carefully for undesirable or unintended side-effects. It's always good to follow the money and see who might benefit from a restricted market.

    1. mudskipper

      UK would get screwed if it tried protectionism..

      You need some 'leverage' to get away with protectionism like that - trade barriers are trade barriers no matter what the reason given - it's a two way process - Australians are fortunate to currently be be major exporters of coal and iron ore (and probaly other things ? food?) - This wouldn't wash in the UK which doesn't really have a globally vital product like that - I doubt doubling of the price of bananas would be politically popular either.

      The other story here is bulk freight - stuff like steel works aren't built next to the coal mines anymore - they just need a deep water port - this has been true since the 1960s. maybe before.

      Good article. Thanks.

    2. Alan McNamara

      Removal of non-tariff barrier

      Something you may not be aware of:

      In the early 2000's (it may have been earlier) Australia changed its voltage standard from 240 V to 230 V. We didn't change a single transformer to achieve this. It used to be 240 V +6%, -10%. It is now 230 V +10%, -6%. They overlap, so the same physical voltage is delivered (or close enough with tweaking the current system).

      Why change it - because now, equipment tested for Europe (230V standard) is now accepted in Australia without re-testing. Massive increase in range of imports for a small market.

      A win for the consumer (rare event).

  27. ben_myers


    Enough said... Ben

  28. Alan McNamara

    Another good read

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson

    1. Tim Worstal

      That's the bunny

      There's a very good review of it out there by Brad DeLong which is worth tracking down.

    2. Maryland, USA

      Yes, "The Box"

      By mistake, I recommended a different book. Yours is the title I was trying to think of. I read about 20 pages of it online. It's riveting.

  29. Christian Berger

    It'll change

    Once oil actually costs money, cargo will also cost significant amounts of money. This will probably result in more localized trade.

  30. Michael Smith

    Many thanks to those guys

    ...for killing the big waterside unions. Containers made it harder to steal and smuggle. Waterside workers had to look for honest ways to make a living.

  31. Maryland, USA

    There's a book about it

    The box that changed the world: fifty years of container shipping - an illustrated history, by Arthur Donovan, Joseph Bonney (2006)

    Also, a Scientific American podcast (2007), in audio and transcript: How Cargo Containers Shrank the World and Transformed Trade.

    If either of these was your source, give credit where it's due.

  32. John Savard

    Protectionism Isn't Crazy

    If we all had to grow our own food and weave our own clothes, we'd be a lot poorer. So trade is a good thing.

    However, the government doesn't allow a village facing hard time to print local scrip so that people can work and trade with each other even if there's no money from outside coming in. Because then they wouldn't be able to pay their taxes in real money. The idea is that you either starve, or you have earned cash some of which you can pay in taxes.

    Forcing people into the money economy is the reason why the economy has to decline, throwing people out of work, when there aren't enough export sales to pay for the cheap imports people individually choose to buy. So it's not that protectionism is a bit of government interference that's intrinsically good, merely that it ameliorates the effects of earlier government interference.

  33. AdamWill

    'tax protection'

    "there is almost no level of legal or tax trade protection that could have stopped foreign goods getting ever cheaper as the costs of hauling things from country to country fell ever lower."

    carbon tax?

    shipping emissions are still relatively high, I think. Still, I guess it still depends. I seem to recall reading a relatively convincing argument that the overall environmental impact of growing tomatoes in a field in California, then shipping them north to Canada, is lower than growing them in a greenhouse in Canada...

  34. J.G.Harston Silver badge


    UK also changed nominal mains voltage from 240v+/- to 230v+/- without changing actual cable-carrying voltage.

  35. I am replete.

    I am replete

    In England there is a busy stretch of the M1 motorway that

    runs alongside a main railway track which,

    runs alongside a main canal,

    and the canal runs alongside an old major road,

    which almost certainly started out in life as a cart track track,

    wide enough to allow Roman chariots,

    and before that a horsepath,

    and before that a footpath,

    and before that....

    That railway nowadays carries, in addition to everything else, containers, of course. What will be the next incarnation of this really useful bit of English land?

    The government is considering a high speed railway and in doing this they are doing no more or less than dozens of governments throughout the world. So the next generation of British container trains will whistle along at high speed.The nation that invented trains, and the industrial revolution, is now content to trail along behind just about everything else.

    The container, that wonderful, ugly box, which has revolutionised world ocean commerce, halts the revolution abruptly at the world’s seaports and reverts to a transport system which is constrained by the width of ancient Roman chariots.

    Isn’t it time to continue the container revolution inland?

    Consider a really creative alternative, a broad-gauge railway line. Not just any broad-gauge but a gauge capable of supporting a train that can carry multiples of standard industrial containers? The standard container is 8 feet wide, 8 feet high and 20 feet long. Suppose our new train was based on a gauge which would allow, say, 3 containers abreast, and say 2 or 3 containers high? These large trains would be able to do for railways what jumbo aircraft did for world air transport, and large ships did for world sea transport. That is, it would enable the trains to carry more cargo more cheaply than at present.

    Having been held up in my car at a Texas railway crossing by a train of approaching 100 cars in length, pulled by 3 or perhaps 4 huge diesel engines, travelling at a seemingly leisurely speed, I have long been aware of the potential of fat trains. One fat train the container car the same length as a single Texas container car, but 3-wide and 3-high, would have replaced 9 conventional cars that day.

    Boeing invented the jumbo jet, and transformed aviation.

    Brunel invented large ships, and thereby transformed marine transport.

    Isn’t it time trains got “invented” into large vehicles and took their rightful place in the world cargo scene as large medium speed, cargo and people carriers?

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