CONTAINERS – The Ineluctable Box

This was the title of a news article some 30 odd years ago when containerization was first introduced into this country . It created a lot of debate , a lot of cynicism and also a lot of excitement all at once – and I was there!

Shipping containers today are taken for granted as an everyday, usual form of shipping but in reality , these are a fairly recent innovation.

Up until the very late 1800’s most ships were operated by their owners who were also their own captains. These adventurous entrepreneurs mostly did their own trading as well and this was the romantic era of shipping. Spices and silks fro the East , minerals and foodstuffs from the South , timber from Africa and the dark side before this – the slave trade!

As colonialism took hold a few centuries before and the need to transport increasing requirements of products around the world, the need to somehow unify different cargoes was realized. These also had to be somehow transported and loaded onto ships as there was of course no modern machinery to perform this type of function. The most practical solution then was the extensive use of barrels and the manufacture of these became a widespread carpentry specialized profession. Look around today and see how many people still bear the surname Cooper (which means barrel maker). Barrels were used for anything from nails to grains , fruit to wine, textiles to pickled meats and even gunpowder. They could be rolled into and out of warehouses , up ramps and gangplanks and were also waterproof .Bags and bales were also used as they could also be manhandled.

Later , once handling equipment was invented and mechanized cranes became commonplace and the use of larger crates which contained numbers of smaller units became more popular as they were faster to handle. At the same time , other merchants saw the advantage of being able to ship their goods on other peoples ships – for a fee of course, and so commercial shipping was born. Trade increased and , in the 1920’s the idea of really large crates or metal cases was mooted by the US military but it never came to fruition until , in 1956 , a trucker by the name of Malcolm McClean of the McClean trucking company decided that his trucks were taking too much time waiting to be loaded and off loaded with cargo . Truck owners at that stage in the USA were forbidden by law to own ships and vice versa so he sold his interests in the trucking company and bought the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation and the Gulf Florida Terminal Company from Waterman Steamship Corporation. In an experiment ,he then had them load some 35 foot fully laden road trailers onto one of these ships rather than unloading them and placing the cargo onto the ship in the conventional way. There are a few versions of this story but in reality he was “piggy backing on the concept which had been initiated during WW2 by the military who had loaded fully laden trucks and trailers onto ships. (this in itself is fascinating reading but the reader is left to look this up for themselves on the internet as it occupies far too much space).

This was fairly successful but he soon realized that it would be better to dispense with loading the whole trailer on but rather to make the body of the trailer detachable and use the remaining part with the wheels for the next load. This was in reality the first instance of intermodalism (more about this in a later article).

McClean then started the Sealand company and ran the first containerized services on the USA Europe route. Services also then startd much later on the Europe Australia and Far Eastern routes but it wasn’t until much later , in the mid 1970’s that containers 1st came to South Africa.

I had joined the Ellerman and Bucknall Steamship Company in 1975 when all liner shipping on SA routes was still break – bulk. We were part of the SA / Europe consortium (known as the Conference lines) and I was on the line desk for Ellerman City Liners (All the ships were named City of ……) and the main thrust was to encourage shippers to progress to what was called the “unit load” concept which was primarily aimed at getting the majority of cargo consolidated onto pallets or pallet boxes to facilitate ease and speed of loading and discharging.

One day in early 1976 , I received a call from one of our customers informing me that he had one of our containers and what should he do with it. Not knowing what he was talking about , I suggested that he tear it up and throw it away! Once he had finished laughing and explained to me what it was , I had to figure out what to do with it – there were absolutely no facilities at all in Johannesburg to handle such type of equipment!

Fortunately , another of my customers had just booked 18T of cargo with me for the City of Oxford – the same ship this had come off and I managed to convince him to use this container for his shipment and it was promptly sent right back where it came from. Other containers followed and eventually this led to the introduction of the South Africa Europe Container service. (a long story but for another time)

Containerisation and Class 1 shipments

The introduction of containers led to major changes in the way explosives were handled and shipped by sea.

In the “old” days (right up to the late 1990’s) shipments of explosives and accessories were exported in purpose designed wooden magazines. These were wooden crates , built by our carpenters and lined with tar paper into which the packaged explosives or accessories were carefully packed . Where the ship did not have an “explosives locker” , these were shipped , sometimes under deck , but mostly on deck, but , today we pack these all into containers which are safe , secure and weatherproof and, more importantly can be quickly loaded and offloaded from ships with the least risk and minimal handling of the actual boxes of explosives. They are packed at the plant , under supervision, transported to the coast, shipped and eventually reach the customer in the same condition in which they left the factory – all contributing to a positive buying experience for the customer.


After a number of years of shipping containers across the Atlantic , it was decided to establish an ISO standard , for the construction of shipping containers to enable true intermodalism – ie the carriage of these units by various modes of transport without having to alter the carriages in each instance. The initial containers were the 35 ft units based on the trailers that McClean had used but , later , these were based on multiples of standard US pallets which were used to pack the majority of cargoes into them. A standard length of 20 ft was decided upon which enabled the carriage of 18 MT payload , which at the time was considered to be the ideal safe working load for a container as it fitted the gross road trailer and train flatbed allowances of the time. The first ISO containers were 8 ft wide and 8 ft high as well. Although these have been metricated in general use to 6m containers , the true measure remains 20 ft. The 8 ft height soon proved to be too low for a number of cargoes and , in the early 1980’s this was changed to 8 ft 6 inches.

Today there are also 9 ft 6 inch containers known as “high cube” containers which have been in the news recently due to their heights on road trailers which caused a bit of contention and speculation but this has now been put to rest,

As a further standard , the need was discovered for a larger volume container for lighter weight cargoes and the 40 ft container was also introduced. The standard then became known as a TEU or twenty foot equivalent unit. Although many people today tend to use this as shorthand for the container itself , it is actually the space occupied by a 20 ft container aboard a ship , also known as a slot. The space occupied by a 40 ft container is actually 2 x TEU’s – NOT FEU (forty foot equivalent unit) although this term has come into general use. The capacity of modern container ships is also described in terms of their TEU capacity.

Containers have been constructed from various materials over the years , from plywood , fiberglass and aluminium to mild steel , but today , the vast majority are made from Corten steel , a very strong , lightweight and corrosion resistant steel which has proved to be ideal for the purpose. The floors are generally constructed of fairly thick timber which has been specially treated against rot and insect infestation and this enables the floors to be fairly easily replaced when they become damaged. They are also equipped with a number of fairly robust internal lasing points which enables cargo stowed insided the to be secured in place and a standard type of door locking gear which enables the dors to be securely locked or sealed. The ends of each corner post (ie top and bottom have reinforced blocks , each with 3 oval holes which have multipurpose functions. They are designed for use with a twistlock system which enables the container to be easily locked in place on road and rail trucks as well as on a ship. The use of double twistlocks also enables containers to be locked together , either vertically (when stacked on top of each other )or laterally when stowed alongside each other.

Aside from the general purpose containers described above , there are also many specialized containers which have evolved as the need arose, Refrigerated containers – both with their own refrigeration units built in or detachable of “plug in units which are connected to special plugs on trucks , trains or ships , “flatracks” containers with only the 2 ends but no sides or tops (used for bulk or heavy lift cargo) , tank containers of various types, ventilated containers, “bolsters” (literally a platform with no sides or top, timber or coil containers and many others. Old containers also have many uses , from store rooms , workshops , school classrooms in rural areas and entire mobile plants such as are used at various mine and construction sites around the world.

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