The first attempt to standardize containers is attributed to the trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean. In the early 1950s, McLean was focused on freeing up highway congestion on the East Coast as the new federal highway system enabled a flow of commercial transport that slowed down at the ports. At the time, skilled longshore workers transferred cargo of all shapes and sizes by hand.
Ideal-X’s journey set off a momentous shift in the shipping industry. The new process reduced costs, streamlined shipments and expedited turnaround time.
Containerization gained a solid foothold when it was adopted by the U.S. military. The container became a vital mover during the Vietnam War, deployed to solve the challenge of sending supplies to a war zone. McLean’s containerization system reduced shipping costs dramatically. By the end of the war, shipping goods by container had become the norm.
The new system revolutionized globalized trade. But not everyone was happy about it. More efficient cargo handling required fewer human workers. In the late 1950s, Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, saw that mechanization was inevitable and sought to get the dock workers “a share of the machine.” After years of negotiations between union members and shipowners, a pact known as the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement of 1960 was ratified. It guaranteed the unimpeded efficient flow of cargo in exchange for unprecedented benefits for union workers.
Today’s supply chain disruptions have revealed the vulnerability of a fragile network falling out of sync. Economists and logistics experts have floated solutions to the problems with little consensus. President Biden launched an action plan in November to modernize port infrastructure, but delays persist. Faced with worker shortages, shippers have called for increasing AI and automation at ports to ease the strain, stoking tensions with the longshore union. Meanwhile, the cost of shipping a standard container from China to the U.S. has increased by threefold compared to a year ago, contributing to rising inflation.
A large container ship like the Ever Given, notorious for running aground in the Suez Canal in 2020, can carry around 18,000 containers, a massive increase from Ideal-X’s 58. Millions of containers are in circulation worldwide, even as a shipping container shortage is exacerbating the disruptions. But manufacturing even more shipping containers won’t necessarily untangle the kinks: they still need to be quickly unloaded at ports, which remain jammed with uncollected containers.
So for now, consumers and retailers will have to live with delayed merchandise, emptier shelves and rising prices. Stacks of shipping containers may be a fixture at ports for some time to come.
ANNY OBERLINK, a former intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
Object Lessons: Shipping Container by Craig Martin (Bloomsbury, 2016)
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson (Princeton University Press, 2016)
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