The Most Influential Box on Earth

The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers—nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest—everything from clothes to cars to computers—now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them.

Those already huge numbers are expected to grow. Increasingly, cargo companies are looking for ways to move bulk cargo in containers, fitting the steel boxes with bladders to transport liquid chemicals or cleaning them and using polypropylene liners to move anything from soy, corn, and wheat to salt and sugar.

Adam Curry, writing in Nautilus about the history and influence of the thing at the center of our modern global transportation system, the universal unit that helps make the supply chain possible: the shipping container. Curry’s piece ran in July, 2013, and it’s as relevant as ever.

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