The standard shipping container is 20 foot by 40 foot and is so simple yet revolutionary. It’s so ubiquitous that you hardly notice it. This box spread in the 1950s and 60s caused a major infrastructure change in the US. The Container drastically increased productivity and speed of transportation and has helped globalization of trade. The once powerful Longshoremen Unions were obliterated.

We miss small wonders of our world. Hardly anyone looks at a 20×40 foot metal box and is impressed. We should be.

Before the 1960s, longshoremen offloaded merchandise from ships. They carried each item off individually. When ships came in, hundreds of longshoremen worked at the docks for hours, packing items into the warehouses for later transport. Goods had to be packed in small containers to allow men to physically carry them. Goods could be lost,separated or misplaced in the warehouses and record keeping was inefficient. Longshoremen had a habit of pilfering through the goods and liberating alcohol and other items, of course. Transport and manufacturing companies counted on losing a percentage of their goods. The Longshoremen Unions were also a major force in big city politics.

In the 1950s, a large metal box was introduced to the world. Merchandise can be packed into the container, and the containers would be stacked inside the ships. They can be lifted out, placed onto railroad cars, or unpacked to be put on trucks. It came about as a result of other industrial technologies like mechane cranes and large metal hull ships, and this combination of technologies replaced inefficient muscle power in overseas transportation.

The containers are standardized and interchangable – they can be used by the US, Japan, Britain, or India. They require little manpower. The costs of transportation declined because of this simple box.

It radically changed the transport hubs in America. Before the containers, New York City and Brooklyn were the major harbors on the Atlantic Coast. Merchandise entered Manhattan and was transported up the Hudson River and Erie Canal to Chicago. The containers turned places like New Jersey into international transport hubs.

The South Street Seaport in downtown Manhattan today is nothing more than a tourist attraction these days, and Brooklyn Harbor is not much better. New Jersey harbors are booming.

The reason? The containers are offloaded from the ships and placed on railroad cars to ship across the country. The new primary harbors needed to be located near cargo railroad junctions, which are lacking inside NYC. You also need a large amount of storage space. Since space in major cities is expensive, suburban and rural harbors better accommodated containers.

New York City, and other ex-shipping cities like San Francisco, turned into centers for the service industries, as their harbors emptied.

Containers allow shipping in bulk. Only a small number of workers and cranes are needed to handle the containers so the longshoremen of America shrank drastically. Containers saved manpower for better uses as the ex-longshoremen found employment in more productive business. Containers prevented theft and loss of merchandise as well.

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