The Advent of the Modern-Day Shipping Container

How a 20-foot metal box revolutionized global commerce.

Now: a modern-day commercial port

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources.

For thousands of years, methods of shipping products across the seas and oceans remained essentially the same. Products were brought to port in wooden crates, sacks, and kegs by wagons or, later, by trucks and trains. Ships were then loaded and unloaded crate by crate, sack by sack, and keg by keg. It was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Theft was a perpetual problem. Often a ship spent more time in ports, loading and unloading, than it would spend at sea.

The advent of World War II brought new logistical challenges in supplying millions of U.S and allied troops overseas and innovative approaches were needed to efficiently supply the war effort. During this period, small, standardized boxes full of war material were introduced to increase the American convoys' capacity to deliver wartime necessities.

After the war, a trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean bought a shipping company and, in 1956, started the practice of transporting product-filled truck trailers that were lifted directly from truck to ship. Whole containers, not just small parcels, were now moved efficiently onto ships. This transportation process, called intermodalism, allowed products to be shipped around the world quickly, cheaply, and efficiently by using cargo containers that more easily fit on trucks, trains, and ships.

Port of Savannah, Georgia, shipping containers

The most common shipping containers come in two sizes, TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) and FEU (forty-foot equivalent unit). Here, a FEU is being loaded on a container ship in the Port of Savannah, Georgia.

The arrival of containers and intermodalism revolutionized the shipping industry. Containers could be efficiently stacked, allowing more and more goods to be transported across the seas. Labor costs were dramatically lowered and, since containers were sealed, theft was reduced. Over time, the marine transportation industry and the size of ships, trucks, trains, docks, and ports increased and expanded to handle the growing use of containers. The impact on global commerce was enormous, leading to a boom in international trade due to lower transportation and handling costs.

As container ships continue to grow in size and ports grow more congested by the year, NOAA plays an increasingly critical role in U.S. marine transportation. NOAA services and products improve the efficiency of ports and harbors, promote safety, and help to ensure the protection of coastal marine resources. Today, NOAA's PORTS® system improves the safety and capability of maritime commerce through the integration of real-time environmental observations, forecasts, and other geospatial information. NOAA's Office of Coast Survey supplies electronic navigation charts, coast pilots, and navigation response teams to meet the increasing challenges associated with marine navigation. And NOAA's National Weather Service provides up-to-date meteorological and oceanographic data.

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TEU stands for Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit, the standardized length of a container for international shipping on land and sea. FEU is a Forty-Foot Equivalent Unit container and twice the size in length of a TEU. The most common height of both containers is 8 feet 6 inches. TEU is also used to indicate a ship’s cargo carrying capacity or the size of a container terminal. For example, the largest container ships can handle over 18,000 TEU per voyage. The world’s busiest container port is Shanghai, which handles roughly 34 million TEU a year.


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