Wide-Scale Adoption

Seeing these dramatic improvements in cost and productivity levels, the shipping industry subsequently mounted a wide-scale adoption of McLean’s containers. The first international shipment of the containers was completed in 1966, and expansion of the practice quickly followed.

Further standardization spurred by the Vietnam War brought McLean’s design in closer alignment with that of rival companies, resulting in the 24-foot and 40-foot containers we have today. The shift met some resistance from major players in the transport industry (namely in trucking and rail) as they adjusted their vehicles to optimize for container space, as well as from dockworkers, as the efficiency of McLean’s design reduced the need for labor. However, the promise of massive cost cuts made the adoption process relatively smooth for all parties.

The success of these containers compared with old methods of shipping have been downright staggering. A study investigating the effects of shipping containers on 22 industrialized countries found a 320% rise in bilateral trade over the first five years after adoption and 790% over the first 20 years.

In stark contrast, a bilateral free-trade agreement was found to boost trade by 45% over 20 years, while GATT membership jumped 285%. It’s fair to say, then, that the use of shipping containers, more than greater levels of international cooperation, has expedited the rate of globalization over the past half-century.

On a more basic level, the advent of shipping containers has allowed developing economies to be more active in the world market than they ever could have been before, when it was 90% more expensive to ship cargo. Since supply chains have become more efficient and wide-reaching, these countries have been able to join existing networks rather than being forced to develop their own -- an impossible hurdle to joining the global economy.

So the next time you see a repurposed shipping container, you’ll know to give the retired box the respect it deserves as a major player in the development of global trade.


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