How much is inside one of those 40' shipping containers?

A technology does not need to be complex to be revolutionary.  Every so often a relatively simple idea comes along that revolutionizes an industry and, in the process, has profound effects on commerce, society, and the global economy.  Containerized shipping is one such technology.  The importance of this technology was brought to mind last month (May 2001) with the death of Malcolm McLean at the age of 87.

In the mid-1950s, McLean, who began as a truck driver in North Carolina and built a huge trucking company, came up with the notion of taking the body from a tractor-trailer and placing it fully-loaded on a ship, a railroad car, or even an airplane.  Ocean shipping in this manner saves the tedious, expensive, and time-consuming  job of unloading cargo from a truck or a railroad car, loading it into the hull of a ship and reversing the process at the ship's destination.  A standard container can carry up to 20 tons (U.S.) fully loaded.  It can keep shipments together, protect them from the elements, from damage in handling, and from theft.  An estimated 90 percent of the world's trade today moves in containers.  One hundred million container loads crisscross the world's oceans each year in over 5,000 container ships.  According to one of the web sites listed below, there are enough containers in the world today to build an 8 foot high wall twice around the Equator.

Not everyone welcomed the container revolution.  Port operators resisted investing in the expensive new equipment needed to hoist containers on and off ships while longshoremen who handled the cargo fought to keep their jobs which were threatened by the new technology.  But the advantages of containerization were too powerful to resist.  And the effects go far beyond the ports.  In fact, many observers attribute the rise of trade between the U.S. and Asia to the reductions in cost and shipping time that containerization made possible.  As an example, standard shipments from Hong Kong to New York, which took approximately 50 days in 1970, today take only 17 days.  Malcolm McLean, while hardly a household name, is recognized as one of the most important innovators of the past 50 years

Containerized cargo includes every commodity imaginable -- retail such as clothing and electronics, foodstuffs, agricultural products and industrial goods.

This 40' container was 39'4" long, 7'6" tall, and 7'8" wide inside.  The container holds 2261 cubic feet of area (despite the figures displayed on the outside).  That is about 84 cubic yards. In the business, ships are divided into 20' container units known as TEU (twenty foot equivalent units).