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Portside: How one simple box revolutionized global shipping

  • This graphic was made for “America on the Move” to illustrate how containers are used interchangably among all surface modes of transport - water, roads, and rail. It is a greatly simplified rendering of a complex system. (From the Smithsonian Collection on loan to the National Museum of American History)
  • The advent of the uniform-sized corrugated steel shipping container some 60 years ago has improved the speed, efficiency and safety of transporting goods across the world. (Georgia Ports Authority/Stephen B. Morton)

Although they’ve only been around for 60 years or so — a mere blip on the vast timeline of global shipping — it’s hard to imagine the highways and byways of our busy port community without intermodal shipping containers.

The colorful, corrugated steel boxes that fit neatly behind the cabs of big trucks or attach to flat rail cars to form seemingly endless lines at railroad crossings could be carrying anything from tennis shoes to televisions, household goods to clothing, fresh pineapple to frozen chicken.

The metal shipping container was the brainchild of North Carolina trucking executive and inventor Malcom McLean, who wanted a sturdy box that could be easily loaded onto ships and would hold cargo securely on long sea voyages.

McLean partnered with California engineer and inventor Keith Tantlinger to create a corrugated steel box that could be separated from a truck chassis and stacked in the hold of a ship or on flatbed rail cars.

It was Tantlinger, in fact, who designed the box with reinforced corners and a twist-lock system that allowed the container to be lifted securely and moved by crane.

It took a few years for containers to catch on but, once they did, there was no going back. Intermodal transportation — a system in which cargo, sealed in the same steel box, can be transported by ship, truck or rail seamlessly across its route — had revolutionized global shipping.

Before the advent of the shipping container, crated and loose goods were fitted into the holds of ships by dock workers, a labor-intensive process that often took as long as a week. When the ship docked at its destination, the process had to be repeated in reverse.

This slow and unwieldy method also served to encourage theft, which was rampant on docks up and down both coasts.

But containerization did more than save loading and unloading time. Its efficiency brought prices down exponentially, while property losses were greatly reduced.

Being able to load more cargo in less time led to bigger, more efficient ships.

Today it’s nearly impossible to travel any major highway in the country without seeing trucks hauling cargo containers, known in the shipping industry as TEUs.

A TEU — short for Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit — is a corrugated steel shipping container that is 8 feet wide, 8 feet high and 20 feet long. It remains the universal industry standard, despite the fact that most containers on the road or rails today are 40-feet long and constitute two TEUs.

Although it’s impossible to know what’s in a container you may pass in traffic, the fact that it’s in the general vicinity of our ports may offer a hint.

Georgia Port Authority lists its top imports (items coming into Savannah on ships and going out on trucks or rail) as retail consumer goods, machinery, appliances and electronics, furniture, automotive, housewares and food, which, if perishable, travels in special refrigerated containers. Top exports (items that come into the port to be shipped out of Savannah) are food, wood pulp, paper, paperboard and clay.

In fiscal 2016, Georgia Ports moved 1.85 million export TEUs and 1.75 million import TEUs for a total of 3.6 million.

With record months in January and April, fiscal year 2017 is poised to surpass that number.

Senior business reporter Mary Carr Mayle covers the ports for the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow. She can be reached at 912-652-0324 or at mary.mayle@savannahnow.com.

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SHIPPING SCHEDULE

Following are the ships expected to call on Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City and Ocean terminals this week. Schedules are supplied by GPA and are subject to change.

TERMINAL VESSEL ETA

GCT EVER LIFTING Today

GCT MAERSK MEMPHIS Today

GCT HS ROME Today

GCT ST LOUIS EXPRESS Today

OT THRASHER Today

OT ENDURANCE Today

GCT DA MING SHAN Saturday

GCT CMA CGM GEORGIA Saturday

GCT MAERSK KOBE Saturday

GCT EVER LISSOME Saturday

GCT PRIORITY Saturday

GCT HYUNDAI MERCURY Saturday

GCT SPIRIT OF TOKYO Saturday

OT AFRICAN IBIS Saturday

OT TIRRANNA Saturday

GCT XENA Sunday

GCT MSC ALESSIA Sunday

GCT MUSTAFA DAYI Sunday

GCT MSC JOANNA Sunday

GCT ANNA MAERSK Sunday

GCT WASHINGTON EXPRESS Sunday

OT SBI SAMSON Sunday

OT BAHRI HOFUF Sunday

OT PORGY Sunday

GCT NYK METEOR Monday

GCT MSC NILGUN Monday

GCT CMA CGM LYRA Monday

GCT HARMONY N Monday

GCT SCT DISTINCTION Monday

GCT MAERSK DENVER Monday

GCT ZIM SHANGHAI Monday

GCT CMA CGM ELBE Monday

OT TARAGO Monday

OT GRANDE CAMEROON Monday

GCT MSC MAXINE Tuesday

GCT MSC KLEVEN Tuesday

GCT MAERSK KOKURA Tuesday

GCT HANOVER EXPRESS Tuesday

GCT MSC KOREA Tuesday

GCT PHILADELPHIA EXPRESS Tuesday

GCT ZIM QINGDAO Tuesday

GCT ALEXANDRA Tuesday

OT BBC MAPLE LEA Tuesday

GCT MSC KARLSKRONA Wednesday

GCT MSC SPAIN Wednesday

GCT ARIAN Wednesday

GCT CMA CGM MUSSET Wednesday

GCT MOL BRAVO Wednesday

GCT NORTHERN PROMOTION Wed.

GCT MOL MAXIM Wednesday

GCT CMA CGM POINTE ALLEGRE Thurs.

GCT ZIM ANTWERP Thursday

GCT HOUSTON BRIDGE Thursday

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