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Intermodal Shipping Containers: A Story Over Time

Throughout history, several achievements have dramatically improved supply chain: Finding the sea route to India in the 15th century, invention of steam ships in the 19th century, or establishing Incoterms in 1936. One transportation invention looms largest in its effect on industry: the shipping container. The shipping container almost single handedly created the ability to go to any store and pick out what you need.

The invention of the shipping container

Intermodal freight containers were invented in the 1950s by Malcolm McLean - an ordinary person working as a truck driver. He drove a truck for a delivery company founded by him and his family in 1935. During a port delivery, he noticed the lengthy amount of time needed to deliver cargo to a vessel. What caused the delay? Port workers had to pass many small boxes from the dock to the ship. McLean was dissatisfied by the slow pace – he couldn't leave until his cargo was loaded and therefore couldn't get a new delivery order for his company. McLean decided to streamline this process by putting small in one bigger metal box which could reach the ship via a crane.

He couldn't find enough resources to fulfill this idea for shipping containers, but after WWII McLean returned to his earlier plan. He had seen that the military used a similar method: shipping large volume of goods via ocean in big boxes, early shipping containers. In 1955 Mclean sold his truck company for $25 millions, and founded a new one called McLean Industries. It was later renamed Sea-Land Service Inc. to highlight the company's delivery service on the sea as well as on the land. He invited a very talented engineer Keith Tantlinger and hired him as a Vice President. Keith created a first shipping container prototype, with metal body, corner fittings, and twistlock. The design was so good that more than 60 years later, we still use it.

Intermodal freight containers ecosystem

McLean created an all-encompassing system which includes freight containers, special ships (redesigned from large oil tankers), and the trucks that carry shipping containers via land. The freight container is intermodal because they can be shipped by different modes of transport. The results were tremendous. In 1956, when the first shipping container was put into use, loading and unloading of goods cost around $6 per ton. When freight containers became popular, the price dropped to 16¢ on. Time needed to load goods dropped drastically. This made possible for ships spend 80% of their time in the sea, as opposed to 50% before shipping containers made loading much quicker. By the end of the 1960s, Sea-Land operated in more than 30 ports with 36 ships and more than 27,000 shipping containers. In 1999 Sea-Land’s international services were bought by Maersk and new company was called Maersk Sealand (now Maersk Line). In 1982 Fortune Magazine included Malcolm McLean, father of the shipping container, into its Business Hall of Fame. In 1995, American Heritage Magazine named him one of the ten innovators of the past 40 years. Most people take shipping containers for granted – but they truly are a modern marvel.

Types of intermodal freight containers

  • The most commonly used shipping containers are: 20’ (called TEU) and 40’ (called FEU) length (US also has a standard 53’ length shipping container).These are called general purpose shipping containers and are used for pallets, cases, boxes, drums, etc.

  • Ventilated shipping containers. Same lengths as above, but actively or passively ventilated.

  • Temperature controlled (refrigerated or heated) shipping containers, for perishable goods.

  • Tank shipping containers, for liquids or gases.


Tank shipping containers for gas, liquid  Tank shipping containers for gas, liquid


  • Bulk shipping containers, for bulk minerals. Usually, they have open top for top loading of those minerals
  • Open-top and open-side shipping containers, for easy loading of heavy and oversized cargo.


Open top shipping containers Open top shipping containers


Whether it is a standard or specialized shipping containers, Fleet can support your business with any ocean freight-related services that you need. Learn more about our ocean freight services here.

Shipping containers used for non-shipping purposes

Shipping containers found use in some unusual field, like containerized equipment. Used primarily by the military, but also for civil purposes, containerized equipment has proved its efficiency in different cases, like mobile data centers, or command and control facilities and even missile launchers.

Another way to utilize containers is to use them as storage facilities, or mobile medical cabinets etc. Shipping containers are increasingly used as full-sized homes. Recently this idea found even further development - a whole luxury hotel was built from shipping containers in Gudauri, Georgia.

Shipping containers today

Today, most goods are shipped via shipping container. In 2016 more than 1.7 billion tons of goods reached their destination in a shipping container. Compare that to air freight, which delivered less than 60 million tons in the same period. The dominance of the shipping container is all due to Malcolm McLean, who was just tired of waiting to load his cargo at the sea port. Because of the invention and adoption of freight containers, consumers can easily find inexpensive goods from every part of the world.

How big is a shipping container?

Shipping containers come in 2 common sizes: 20-foot and 40-foot containers. The dimensions of a 20-foot container are: Length: 19’10.5” x Width: 8’ x Height: 8’6.00”. For a 40-foot container, they are: Length: 40’ x Width: 8’ x Height: 8’6.00”. There are two bigger versions of the 20- and 40-foot container, named 20’ HC and 40’HC, with HC means high cube. The HC containers are one foot taller than the original one, their height is 9’ 6.00”. If it is hard to imagine how big a shipping container is, here is a perspective: a 40’ container can hold 8,000 shoe boxes (think about that whenever you buy a new pair of shoes). Goods are usually stacked on wooden pallets (so that they can be lifted and moved around easily), a 20-foot container can hold 10 American standard pallets, while a 40-foot container can hold 20. For more information about how pallets can fit in containers, check out this article.

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