Container shipping

Page 5 – Transforming our economy

Containers changed everything. Railways ordered fleets of flat-deck rolling stock and ‘daylighted’ tiny 19th-century tunnels so they could get through. Truckers bought heavy-duty vehicles and new businesses sprang up to store, clean and repair containers. In warehouses and loading docks around the country, heavy forklift trucks lifted boxes on and off vehicles. To an even greater extent than the Victorian steam revolution, this ‘second revolution’ spread far beyond the waterfront. So great has its impact been that many have wondered, like Murray Edmond in Landfall, if containerisation was ‘the great invention of the twentieth century as the light bulb was of the nineteenth’.

Barbie's supply chain

In his book The box, economist Marc Levinson explains how the famous doll ‘Barbie, simple girl though she is, had developed her very own global supply chain.’ In 1959 Mattel Corp made the dolls in a Japanese factory and shipped them to the US. Thanks to containers, ‘low transport costs helped make it economically sensible for a factory in China to produce Barbie dolls with Japanese hair, Taiwanese plastics, and American colorants, and ship them off to eager girls all over the world.’

Less tangible were the benefits that shippers gained from fast reliable transit. As software improved, big customers managed their supply chains with unprecedented precision. By the late 1990s, global giants such as Maersk Line, Mediterranean Shipping Co. and Evergreen guaranteed their customers door-to-door freight service anywhere in the world. The logistics industry boomed. Today shipping lines pre-book port berths and computer tracking enables them to accurately predict delivery dates. Some port companies now run ‘inland ports’ and some really large customers’ distribution centres resemble mini ports. Waterfront-style straddle carriers enable the Warehouse’s Manukau North Island Distribution Centre to devan (unpack) up to 60 containers a day.

Global supply chains, ‘just-in-time’ shipping – these and other concepts have changed the way we work and shop. Shipowner C.C. Tung explained: ‘Without the container the global village would still be a concept, not a reality, because manufacturing would still be a local process. Car companies, for instance, would still have to insist that their component suppliers were located within 150 miles, as they once did.’

In 2009/10 the BBC followed the movements of one container. Over a period of 421 days, the Beeb’s box travelled 51,654 miles (more than 83,000 km) – 47,076 by ship, 3229 by train and 1349 by road. Despite spending several months idle because of the recession, the container completed the equivalent of 2.08 circuits of the earth. On its return to Britain, it was converted into a soup kitchen and sent to Africa.

How to cite this page

'Transforming our economy', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-Jun-2016