Everyone is talking about the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, but I had no idea that it was also the 50th birthday of the lowly and omnipresent Shipping Container…
It may not be printed in red on your calendar, but April 26 is an important date in economic history. Fifty years ago, the Ideal-X, a war-surplus oil tanker with a steel frame welded above its deck, loaded 58 aluminium containers at a dock in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the ship steamed into Houston, Texas, where trucks took on the metal boxes and carried them to their destinations.
This was the beginning of the container revolution. By dramatically lowering freight costs, the container transformed economic geography. Some of the world’s great ports – London and Liverpool, New York and San Francisco – saw their bustling waterfronts decay as the maritime industry decamped to new locations with room to handle containers and transport links to move them in and out. Manufacturers, no longer tied to the waterfront to reduce shipping costs, moved away from city centres, decimating traditional industrial districts. Eventually, production moved much farther afield, to places such as South Korea and China, which took advantage of cheap, reliable transportation to make goods that could not have been exported profitably before containerisation.
One last thing, it’s also Captain Sensible’s birthday!