Guest Blog: The Shipping Container

by Mai Armstrong | Working Harbor Committee

Merchant ship carrying mail from the United States. Photo: US Merchant Marines (PD)

Merchant ship carrying mail from the United States. Photo: US Merchant Marines (PD)

My grandfather was a cargo ship captain in the 1950’s and 60’s, before the invention of the shipping container. Cargo in those days was transported ‘break-bulk’ – goods of all kinds packaged in boxes, barrels, sacks and bags were loaded and unloaded from the ship one piece at a time.

Stevedores at work. Photo by Buonasera (CC 3.0)

Stevedores at work. Photo by Buonasera (CC 3.0)

Stevedores or longshoremen moved the bulk goods by hand – the whole process took about 48 hours, much to delight of 5-year old me who got to stay onboard ship to ‘visit with Gramma ‘n Grampa.’

On April 26, 1956, Malcom McLean sailed his modified ship Ideal X from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Port of Houston, Texas, caarrying the first shipment of 58 boxes stacked aboard – revolutionizing transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century.

Shipping container. Photo by KMJ (CC 3.0)

Shipping container. Photo by KMJ (CC 3.0)

Shipping containers are standardized metal boxes which can be loaded and unloaded, stacked and transferred from container ships, rail and semi-trailer trucks without being opened.

Because containers were quicker to load, larger loads could be offloaded in a shorter time, reducing the cost of shipping consumer goods worldwide.

Containership. Photo by Buonasera (CC 3.0)

Containership. Photo by Buonasera (CC 3.0)

Today, 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is transported by container with some modern container ships carrying over 19,000 TEUs. The Port of New York and New Jersey is the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard and 3rd largest in the nation, outranked only by the Port of LA and Long Beach – handling over 3.3 million containers in 2014 filled with consumer goods of all shapes and sizes.

The water has always played a starring role in Mai Armstrong’s travels as she lived in coastal cities around the globe. Haunting local waterfronts since moving to NYC in the 80s, Mai began volunteering for the Working Harbor Committee after attending one of its behind-the-scenes boat tours of the container ports of NY harbor. Mai is founding editor of Working Harbor Committee blog and manages the nonprofit organization’s social media and marketing communications.

Copyright © Janie Rosman and Kaleidoscope Eyes 2016

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