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Cargo Containers & Heavy Shipping – A Brief History


Sanjay Negi

Assistant Director @ Shiprocket

May 18, 2022

7 min read

When it comes to heavy shipping, a lot has changed over the years with respect to technology, mode of transport and time taken to ship from one place to another. 

Cargo Containers

Tough Times, Rough Seas

Records indicate that Octavian, the first Roman emperor, sent around 10,000 horses each year from the provinces of Cyprus and Egypt (part of Augustus’s Empire in 30 BC) to the Pandyas of Madurai during the 1st century CE. Since the sea trade routes between Egypt and India did not involve any direct sailing, all the cargo goods were shipped to Aden (modern-day Yemen) and then forwarded to the southern coast of India. 

How did the sailors manage to pull off large scale heavy shipping? How were the logistical challenges handled? It is said that a ship would require around three weeks to a month just to load or unload the goods in them. Standing in 2022, one can’t even imagine facing such situations. 

Industrial Age – Modern Times

Before the advent of the modern-day cargo container, freight used to be transported as break bulk from one vessel to another. But there were several problems that affected the process. There would be the risk of breakage, theft, spillage and spoilage of the goods. The entire process was time-consuming and cumbersome as there really was no proper method of bulk transportation.   

Cut to the 1830s, the British switched from horse-drawn transport to rail transportation. 

During the Second World War, the United States Army started using standardised small-sized containers for faster distribution of supplies.

Not only did the 1950s bring about change in the global geopolitics, but it also gave the heavy shipping industry one of the best gifts there ever has been. 

In January 1956, Malcom McLean, an American businessman and Keith Tantlinger, an engineer hired by McLean, changed the landscape of the heavy shipping industry.

With their invention of the carry containers, which Tantlinger reversed engineered from converted WW II T2 tankers, this innovation became a legacy and earned McLean the title of ‘The Father of Containerisation’. 

Industry Boom

If cargo containers could speak, they would talk about the revolution they brought around in the world of heavy shipping, and of course, admire Sea-Land Industries, McLean’s Shipping company. By the end of the 1960s, the company had 27,000 trailer type containers, 36 trailer ships and access to over 30 port cities. 

Using containers gave the heavy shipping companies 36 fold savings compared to using traditional loading and unloading techniques. As the ships got bigger, they could hold more cargo containers and reduced transportation rates further. 

It is estimated that over 90% of the global trade is carried over the waves, so one can only imagine the boom the heavy shipping industry had after the introduction and popularisation of the intermodal container cargo. 

Be it metal, grains, crude oil, or most of the world’s manufactured goods and products, cargo containers carry it all. While most of these containers are big metal boxes that protect goods from adverse weather conditions, there are several types of specialised containers used for shipping.

Types Of Shipping Containers

The shipping industry relies heavily on the various types of containers used for transporting goods safely from one place to another. Moving containers protect contents on the long journeys they make and ensure they make it back to you in one piece.

Types Of Shipping Containers
Types Of Shipping Containers

Container units may vary in dimension, structure, materials, construction etc. depending on the type of products to be shipped or the special services needed from them. Various types of shipping containers are being used today to meet the requirements of all kinds of cargo shipping, with heavy-duty boxes being made mostly out of weathering or corten steel. Here are the different types of shipping containers based on their purpose and design:

  • Tanks – These are storage containers made of strong steel and anti-corrosive materials to provide long life and protection to the materials. Used mostly for transportation of liquid materials, tanks are used by a huge proportion of the shipping industry. 
  • Drums – Made up of materials like steel, lightweight metals, fibre, and hard plastics, drums are circular shipping containers most suitable to transport liquid material in bulk. They may be small in size due to their shape but need extra space. 
  • Car Carriers – Storage containers made for the shipment of cars over long distances. These containers are made with collapsible sides to prevent the car from getting damaged or moving from the spot.
  • Swap Bodies – Used mostly in Europe, swap body containers are provided with a strong bottom and a convertible top and are used for their versatility.
  • Tunnel Containers – With doors on both ends of the container, these types of storage units are used for quick loading and unloading of goods and materials.
  • Flat Rack Containers – These containers have collapsible sides that can be used as flat racks for shipping a variety of goods.
  • Open Top Containers – This type of containers come with a convertible top that can be removed completely to make an open-top to ship materials of any height easily.
  • Half Height Containers – Made mostly of steel, these are similar open-top containers which are half the height of normal containers. These containers are used to transport sand, coal, stones or loose bulk materials that require easy loading and unloading.
  • Dry Storage Containers – Standardised by the ISO, these are the most commonly used containers, coming in sizes of 10, 20 and 40ft. These containers are used to transport dry materials.
  • Double Doors Containers – These storage units are provided with double doors to provide additional width for loading and unloading of wide standardised industrial materials or goods of 20 and 40 ft like iron, steel etc. 
  • Special Purpose Containers – These are not ordinary containers. These containers are custom made for specialised purposes, like the shipment of weapons and arson or heavy haul. Security mostly remains the priority for these containers. The type of material used to construct these containers depends on the special purpose they need to cater to.  
  • Refrigerated ISO Containers – These are temperature-regulated shipping containers that have a controlled low temperature. These are used to ship perishable items like fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products over long distances.
  • Cargo Storage Roll Containers – These are specialised foldable containers made for transporting stacks of materials. They are made of strong, thick wire mesh and rollers for easier movement. 
  • Open Side Storage Containers – These containers have doors that can be changed completely into open sides to provide a wider room for loading and unloading of materials.
  • Insulated or Thermal Containers –  Unlike refrigerated containers, which have cooling systems attached, these containers come with regulated temperature control to maintain a higher temperature.
  • Intermediate Bulk Shift Containers – These specialised shipping containers are made for the sole purpose of intermediate shipping of goods. These containers handle bulk materials that are further packed and sent to the final spot.

Final Words

Thanks to all the advancements in cargo shipping, heavy shipping has come a long way. Catering to the B2B segment has become a lot easier. With the right logistics partner, one can ensure safe transportation of goods and in turn, a growth in revenue. It is essential that businesses choose a reliable shipping service that has a wide network and provides affordable B2B and cargo shipping services.

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