90% of everything we use in our daily lives—auto-mobiles, clothing, food, supplies, furniture, medicine—have traveled a long way by sea to get to us, and it’s highly likely that they arrive in containers. These giant metal boxes have completely changed the face of world trade by reducing the cost of transportation and increasing efficiency.

British Beginnings

Today, more than 90 % of so-called general cargo (cargo of individual units transported in packaging) travels in containers. However, contrary to popular belief, these containers are not an American invention from the recent century. In the 1700s, efficiency-minded Englishmen started using big wooden boxes fixed on railcars to transport coal. Miners filled these boxes directly in the mine shafts, and then horses dragged the wagons to the pier on the Bridgewater Canal, which led to Manchester.

18th centuryEnglish wooden boxes for transporting coal
Already in the 18th century, the English used wooden boxes for transporting coal

On the pier, boxes with coal were loaded by crane onto barges and sent to the factories of the textile capital of England. Compared to the tedious bustle of sacks and carts, this innovation saved a lot of time, energy, and money. With the growth of railroad networks, the English method of transporting goods became widespread in a variety of countries. Towards the middle of the 19th century, iron containers made their appearance. After another half a century, we had closed containers designed for transportation on rapidly-developing automobiles. In the 1920s, the British came close to creating a unified container transportation system: the RCH standard, proposed by the logistics organization Railway Clearing House. It united the motley railroad industry into a single transportation complex. RCH containers are 5- and 10-foot-long wooden boxes, which were primarily used on British roads, but, due to their fragility, did not gain the trust of maritime shippers.

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