Container Shipping – The Journey That Was

Image Courtesy: Hapag-Lloyd

It is remarkable to think that the first container ship set sail as late as 1956 and today, the majority of global trade uses this medium. The phenomenon of container shipping had an all pervasive effect on the world and a major impact on not just the global economy, but also, on globalisation.

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On April 26, 1956, Malcolm McLean, a trucking tycoon, used a converted tanker to move the first container filled with cargo from New Jersey to Houston by sea. The converted tanker, Ideal X, sailed from New York to Houston in the US, carrying 58 containers on its decks along with petroleum in its hold. As simple as it sounds, this demonstrated the basic idea that cargo could be handled just twice – once at origin and once at destination, a significant improvement.

Before this, goods were transported in barrels, sacks, boxes and wooden crates, amounting to an extremely labour-intensive and time consuming loading and unloading process.

Mclean went on to found SeaLand services, which became the trailblazer as containerisation opened up new markets and gradually connected just about every corner of the world to the global economy.

A few years later, SeaLand created the first transatlantic service using shipping containers, and after that, Overseas Container Lines launched in the United Kingdom. Since that time, companies have been utilising large cargo containers for shipping all types of goods overseas.

Today, it is the European lines that dominate the market. About 30 lines operate container shipping services to different parts of the globe. The largest six of them are Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Company, CMA/CGM, Cosco Shipping, Evergreen and Hapag-Lloyd.

While containerisation has resulted in major advances in the shipping industry, it has had an even greater worldwide impact on globalisation. Container shipping has been referred to as the unsung hero of globalisation, bringing together people and cultures of different nationalities as crew or business partners. The story of this incredible journey – from a simple idea to a multi-billion dollar industry has been documented in a book entitled, ‘The Box: How the Shipping Container made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger’ by by Marc Levinson (2006). Emerging markets have been able to make their resources, and competitive advantage in labour and costs, available internationally.

As outsourcing and relocation of manufacturing continues to grow, global container transportation becomes increasingly important. Shipping containers and supply chains reach destinations around the world thanks to ocean cargo networks that grow in volume every year. The innovation of the shipping container has developed and changed the global supply chain to operate more effectively, and drive costs down for all stakeholders.

In the over 50-years of the initiation of shipping containers into mainstream maritime freight operations, a lot of advancement has been made. Today, the global cargo shipping spectrum has widened to really enormous proportions while also helping several newer shipping conglomerates and even countries to enter the fray.

Bearing rich significance to the nature of maritime operations, the advent of containerisation fuelled a much needed thrust into the marine sector, propelling it to heights never seen before.

In conclusion, it is right to say that although goods and services were transported before the advent of containerisation, the phenomenon, once introduced, significantly changed the way world trade was conducted. It made such an impact that without doubt one can say, things would never be the same again.