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Every industry has its base unit, the quantity by which growth and decline are measured. In shipping, that unit is the 20-foot (six-meter) container, roughly the size of the tiniest of tiny homes. In the 21st century, it is the conduit for much of the material goods that furnish our lives.
Consumers in North America and Europe, ravenous for the newest products, import more than they export. Global trade has boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with stores rushing to restock panic-stripped shelves and housebound shoppers moving online. The demand—and a behemoth traffic jam in the Suez Canal—has sparked container shortages, while some ports can scarcely manage the incoming shipments. In Oakland and Los Angeles, California, full containers have piled up in parking lots and on residential streets. Once unloaded, the boxes are quickly shipped back to China for more cargo. “The lead export of [the twin ports of] Long Beach-Los Angeles is fresh air—that is, empty containers,” says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a transportation geographer at Hofstra University in New York.
Two years of snafus has brought shipping into the public eye, but for people who live in port cities around the world, the looming vessels anchored offshore are already a familiar sight.
A horizon dotted with container ships, however, is fairly recent in shipping’s long history. Containers—affectionately dubbed “sea cans”—emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a way of transporting goods between coastal cities in the United States and to Alaska, Hawai‘i, and Puerto Rico. Malcolm P. McLean, a North Carolina truck driver turned trucking magnate, had grown tired of waiting for dockworkers to unpack deliveries. He calculated that moving giant boxes of goods directly from trucks to transport ships would cut costs and congestion at ports.
“Before containerization, ships had to be loaded and unloaded by hand, especially cargo—crates of shoes, alcohol, cigarettes,” says Rodrigue. The process was like packing and unpacking a house: time-consuming and dangerous for the most precious goods. Shipping companies, which also faced organized crime and rampant theft on the docks, adopted sea cans to improve bottom lines. In 1956, the going rate for shipping a tonne of cargo domestically was US $6.43. But with containers, McLean cut the cost to just $0.18 per tonne. Their use quickly spread to countries that traded with the United States.
In the spring of 1966, McLean, a newly minted shipping baron, sent the first specialized container ship across the Atlantic from New York to Rotterdam, Netherlands. After winning a contract to ship US military supplies to Vietnam for the war, McLean’s Sea-Land company constructed container ports in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and Da Nang. Ever a shrewd businessman, McLean then forged a deal with a Japanese electronics company to fill his empty ships in Yokohama, Japan, with televisions and stereos for the North American market.
By 1970, ports in Europe, Australia, and Asia were handling the now-ubiquitous steel boxes, though major US container terminals still dominated global traffic.
In the two decades that followed, North American and European companies shifted their manufacturing base, outsourcing materials and moving production overseas. Box shipping followed. By 1995, ports in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea were awash in containers. As sea cans were adapted to carry more commodities, such as meats, ice cream, and tropical fruits, deepwater ports in South America, Africa, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean built the necessary cranes and berths to accommodate container ships.
But it was China’s emergence as an international manufacturing powerhouse that cemented the global economy’s reliance on the container. “China could not have existed today as we know it without the container,” says Rodrigue. “It would have been impossible to export at that scale—to flood the rest of the world with cheap consumer goods.” By 2020, seven of the world’s 10 largest terminals were located in China. Shanghai, the very busiest, handled enough sea cans that year to encircle the world nearly seven times.