Marisol International Transportation & Logistics Blog

The History of Containerization Within World Trade

Posted by Chelsea Mitchell on Sep 14, 2015 3:47:00 PM

Trade between civilizations has occurred around the world for thousands of years. However, trade was revolutionized in 1956 due to the introduction of intermodal containers by Malcolm McLean. 

The History of Containerization within World Trade

Prior to containerization, cargo was loaded into barrels, sacks and wooden crates. This made the loading and unloading of a ship extremely labor intensive and time consuming. There were also high risks of accident, loss and theft.

The vision of the ocean container surfaced when Malcolm McLean, the owner of a small trucking firm in North Carolina, experienced delays at the New York harbor. McLean was forced to wait for days while longshoremen loaded bales of export cotton aboard a vessel intended for Istanbul. McLean realized that there had to be a more efficient way to load, transport and safeguard cargo. Therefore, he developed the idea of a metal standardized shipping container.

In 1956 McLean converted an old World War II tanker into the container ship Ideal X. The container ship carried 58 metal containers and 15,000 tons of bulk petroleum on its maiden voyage from Port Newark to the Port of Houston. In 1958, McLean expanded his operations to Puerto Rico, then the West Coast via the Panama Canal in 1962 and north to Alaska that same year. During these years additional companies began containerized services as well. 

In 1961 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) set standard sizes for containers. The two most commonly used sizes, even today, are the 20-foot and the 40-foot containers. 

The first international container ship voyage took place in 1966. The ship sailed from Port Elizabeth in New York to the Port of Rotterdam with 236 containers. Container ship construction then began to increase over the next couple of years. In 1968, 18 container vessels were built, ten of them with a capacity of 1,000 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit), which was large for the time. In 1969, 25 ships were built and the size of the largest ship increased to almost 2,000 TEUs. Modern container ships have a capacity of up to 21,000 TEUs for major trade lanes. Learn more about mega-vessels here

In the late 1960's McLean tapped into a new market. The U.S. military was experiencing difficulties delivering supplies to troops in South Vietnam. McLean convinced the military that containerization could help combat the cargo theft which it was experiencing. McLean also noticed that manufacturing was slowly shifting from North America to Asia. Therefore, he established a trade route from the West Coast to Vietnam with war supplies, then back across the Pacific with commercial cargo from Asia. When the trans-pacific trade grew, McLean teamed up with Southern Pacific Railroad to develop the first double-stack freight car for transporting containers inland from West Coast ports. 

World trade has flourished due to the implementation of the shipping container. Nearly 90 percent of global cargo is now transported via container ships, supporting economies around the world. Shippers have also benefited from theft reductions and decreases in shipping costs due to the containerization movement.  

Marisol International offers Full Container Load (FCL) and Less-Than-Container-Load (LCL) global transportation solutions. Additionally, Marisol specializes in customs brokerage, cargo insurance and customs bonds. Contact us today to learn more about our import and export solutions. Or subscribe to our weekly industry newsletter here

Ocean Container Size and Weight Guide


Topics: trade, Containerization

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