The steel box is probably one of the most revolutionary elements of the shipping industry because it allowed for the transportation of large amounts of cargo over large distances. It has been an invaluable addition to the industry since it broadly reflects some of the important changes that have taken place within the industry over the past six decades.
The best steel box containers are able to withstand the principle challenges of transporting goods by sea including:
[a] The heaviness of the cargo
[b] The security considerations for shipping
[c] Avoidance of rat and pest infestations
[d] Easy handling from loading to offloading
The modern steel boxes are reusable for a range of functions including the construction of houses and offices. This is an important indicator of how much the industry has changed. It shows how people are now paying some attention to issues of sustainability and environment protection.
There is a wide variety of options available for shipping. At the top end are the reusable that are excellent for intermodal shipments. At the lower end are the purpose-built corrugated boxes.
Currently there are about 17 million intermodal containers around the globe. However, about 7 million of them are abandoned at the destination because it is not cost-effective to ship them back to the country of origin.
The impact of the steel box cannot be underestimated. First of all, they made shipping easier and cheaper. That, in turn, fueled global trade over long distances.
The Pre-1956 Era
The old shipping methods were very much geared towards manual operations. Although they helped to build interpersonal relationships among the shippers, they were also cumbersome and expensive procedures. The early innovators went through many teething problems before the final product was on the market.
One of the milestones was in April 1956 when a refitted oil tanker was able to carry 58 containers from Newark to Houston. Although the trip was successful, it involved incredible amounts of funding that was obtained from private investors as well as ports. At the time it was hoped that future technology and a wider market base would eventually bring the costs down.
There was some resistance from the two principal shipping trade unionists including Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason. The issues that were involved touched on job roles and the safest measurements for the container. One of the more successful providers was McLean which was famous for delivering supplies to US soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Before that, the SS Warrior had quietly carried merchandise from New York to the German port of Bremerhaven in 1954. There were 5,000 tons of cargo consisting of nearly 200,000 separate items and over 1,000 different shipments. Loading, offloading and tracking all these items was a nightmare that marked the pre-1956 shipping methods.
Some of the difficulties that were faced included:
 Everything had to be counted and loaded in by hand
 The wooden pallets used could not cope with the load
 Hoisting the pallet in the air was a particularly challenging task
 Nothing could be done without the willing support of strong and dedicated employees on shore
It is not surprising that in 1950, New York alone was recording up to six separate serious accidents on average per day. Other ports were even less safe. It would cost the equivalent of $420 just to process one ton of goods. The entire shipment could take up to 3 months to completely clear. This was a system that was no longer sustainable.
Container Shipping After 1956
Once the idea of a steel shipping box had been established in the industry, it heralded important changes. It is that box that has fueled the rapid economic transformation of China, a major influencer and contributor to international trade. The box has actually been credited with increasing globalization, with all the attendant challenges to world stability.
By the 1960s, the world trade merchandise supply chain was fully established thanks to the steel box. At that time, this trade was about 20% of world GDP. To date, that figure has steadily risen until it hit the 50% market.
Some local communities do not think that this is necessarily a good thing, but the economists are supportive of this level of shipping. Some might be surprised at the kind of impact that could be made by a corrugated steel box that measures no more than 8 feet wide, 8 feet 6 inches high, and 40 feet long.
Consequences of the Box
As a result of the success of the steel box, it was widely adopted in the industry. The reduced shipping costs brought in new players in an industry that would otherwise have been beyond their reach. New destinations were opening up to aid the transformation into a globalized world. The steel box has become a fixture in the industry and it is inconceivable that the industry would ever do without it.
The Industry Today
Now that the box is established, the industry is looking for even more efficient technologies. The starting point is in ensuring that the boxes that are used can be recycled so that the toll on the environment is reduced. This is in line with the expectations of corporate social equity in the shipping industry today.
It must also be noted that the steel box has also been abused for criminal purposes such as human trafficking. Despite some of these problems, the steel box is still a symbol of successful shipping. When the United States was in an economic decline after the credit crunch of 2008, it was the sight of empty steel boxes on the ports that demonstrated the end of an era of manufacturing.
The Future of Shipping
The shipping industry is always looking to evolve in order to deal with the challenges of the future. Although speed is now at its zenith, the overall issue of efficiency has not yet been definitively resolved. Ocean shipping is an expensive endeavor, even though it is much cheaper than using an airplane. For the moment the steel box has a certain future that will involve ferrying millions of dollars’ worth of goods across thousands of miles.
A shipping industry without its iconic steel box would not be where we are today. Certainly, a powerhouse like China would not have achieved even a fraction of what it has achieved so far to date. Nevertheless, the steel box may undergo even more modifications in order to make it fit for future purposes.