High-value products such as sensitive electronic equipment, antiquities, perishable food products, spirits and pharmaceuticals can be sealed inside specialised containers, loaded and unloaded with unique dockside cranes and arrive at their destination safely (and intact). Marc Levinson, in his 2005 study of shipping containers, The Box, notes that the equivalent of over 300 million shipping containers (20 foot or 6.058 metres long) were annually at sea at the time of writing. Over twenty-five per cent of these global shipping containers left from Chinese ports.

In the mid-1950s, Malcom McLean, an American trucking-company owner, and Keith Tantlinger, an engineer, developed a standardised container-shipping system using a 33-foot long (10.05 metres) metal container that integrated the container’s modular dimensions, the dockside crane, the lorry and the ship into an unprecedented seamless loading system.

Every element was compatible: the lorry trailers accepted the containers, the boxes were securely stackable and McLean’s ship’s hold was designed for the 33-foot units.

In April 1956, Malcom McLean’s company loaded its first integrated container ship at Port Newark, New Jersey, inside eight hours and set sail within the same day.

This was unprecedented. A container was loaded every seven minutes. When accountants calculated container-loading costs compared to the labour-intensive loading of traditional cargo, they found the bulk cargo loading costs were approximately US$6 per ton while the container loading costs were US$0.16 per ton.

Before the development of standardised container shipping (now called intermodal shipping), ship cargo was typically ‘bulk’ cargo such as cement, wheat or ore moved by shovel or conveyor, or ‘break bulk’ cargo arriving at dockside as cartons, cases, crates, barrels or bales.

Handling break bulk cargo in Australia typically required a hatch crew consisting of nine men: two ship’s winch drivers (traditionally older men), a hatchman for signalling the winch drivers and six holders or cargo handlers working below deck. The cargo was lifted off the dock or barge and lowered into the hold by the winch drivers.

The goods were loaded by density – for example, bagged soda ash would be placed at the bottom, and followed by crates, boxes and other lighter cargo. Items were distributed evenly in the hold by hand labour.

Below decks, it was heavy work for the cargo handlers. Cargo was stowed by hand with assistance from a winch-and-pulley arrangement used to position exceptionally heavy crates.

Some of the heaviest work was eliminated when cargo began to arrive on timber pallets, and forklifts were introduced into the holds to position the palletised cargo, but the work remained arduous. When container ships began to call regularly at Melbourne and Sydney in 1969, the decline of Australian break bulk shipping began.

Break bulk cargo presented (and continues to present) extraordinary opportunities for pilferage. News of valuable cargo quickly circulated amongst the warehouses and docks. The cargo handlers’ bars and levers were handy tools and a timber crate could easily split open ‘by accident’.

Losses from petty theft helped drive shippers to adapt the modular shipping container refined by McLean and Tantlinger. Despite the container, however, computer laptops, mobile telephones, perfume and apparel remain targets for theft.

Professional cargo thieves with standardised lorries now heist entire containers. With the increasing use of self-refrigerated and/or insulated containers for perishable goods, even these expensive specialised units are stolen and sold on an expanding black market. At the beginning of the 21st century, international cargo losses were estimated at $30 billion dollars annually.

Following the 1956 innovations of the shipping container, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the container-shipping industry developed specifications for a range of container sizes.

The ISO defines an intermodal (ship, air, truck or train transport) shipping container as a single rigid sealed reusable metal box of a permanent character, strong for repeated use, offering one or more modes of transport without repacking and fitted for handling with lifts, cranes and forklifts.

The corner fittings for the ISO container proved to be one of the more demanding design problems, as the corners were required to stack as well as lock.

Typically, the box is fabricated in steel with timber floors and double opening doors opening to a 270º arc. The generic ISO container continues to drive the design development of ships, dockside cranes, lift trucks and container transport vehicles.

Standardised containers are available in ISO specifications for 10-foot (3.029-metre), 20-foot (6.058-metre), 30-foot (9.087-metre) and 40-foot (12.192-metre) sizes. Because of their North American origin, the dimensions retain their imperial measurements, although the external measurements of containers are now described in shipping language as TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units).

The market for new and used shipping containers has also generated a novel range of prefabricated architecture based on the TEU box. Travelodge has opened new sites in the London suburbs of Uxbridge and Heathrow using modular rooms formed from Chinese-manufactured containers.

A 2006 Funda Award–winning Dutch housing project near Amsterdam uses a six-level stack of 40-foot containers in a 150 unit housing development. To date, over 1000 Dutch housing units have been designed in the Netherlands, built in China and shipped to Dutch ports.

This year, the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, has been investigating the purchase of 100 container housing units for student accommodation in 2009.

In the 1960s, the United States military was one of the early adapters of the container, with the Conex (container express). The US armed forces now use the humble Conex as the starting point for the design development of the CHU (sometimes called Choo), a Containerised Housing Unit currently used in Afghanistan.

The Australian military used similar adapted containers for their former base in Iraq. Shipping containers have been adapted for chapels, jails, protective barriers on building sites, stacked artists’ studios, A60-class cabins for offshore drilling platforms, and site sheds. Australians have also re-adapted the slang term ‘donga’ to describe site sheds made from shipping containers.

The design and seamless integration of the shipping container in global transport has driven the rise of Asian ports and resulted in the wholesale destruction of traditional European and North American ports.

The competition in shipping has also remained intense. The more recent container vessels, such as the Danish Emma Maersk launched in 2006, can carry 11 000 full 20-foot containers, equal to a train 71 kilometres long. In mid-2008, the cost to ship a container from western American ports to China was US$766 per TEU and shipping costs continue to rise.

The box has also led to a unique form of navigation hazard – the floating container. Some 2000 to 10 000 containers are lost at sea every year and most sink to the bottom. But some containers stay afloat when internal air pockets form, creating a major hazard for small craft such as yachts.

On the other hand, the flotsam from lost containers can provide beachcombers with windfalls. In 2002, 33 000 Nike sport shoes floated ashore in the northwest Pacific from three containers lost off northern California.

The greatest windfall came in 2007 from 200 containers lost off the southwest English coast following the grounding of the container ship Napoli. Lucky beachcombers rescued carefully crated BMW motorcycles from the surf.  

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