The first containers, I was told, back when working for the Port of New York and New Jersey in the 1980s, were used by the U.S. Army shipping cargo in truck bodies to Alaska from the West Coast. These weren’t the 40-foot containers Malcolm McClean made famous in the 1950s but they were the start of it. McClean had the vision of loading a truck chassis with a box filled with stuff packed at the factory, then the box removed from the chassis, loaded aboard a ship, and sailed to another truck chassis far away. His original vision was tied to sending stuff from New York to Texas, avoiding the trucking costs for the long distance, but by the mid-1960s this technology was sweeping the world. I remember seeing the first container ships passing our lobster gear on Lydonia Canyon off Georges bank in 1969. “What’s that?” we’d ask.
Serving as a sailor in the “old” days meant you’d steam between ports, a few days, maybe longer, and then spend two to three weeks tied to the dock being unloaded and loaded. It took a lot of people, longshoremen, and a lot of time. “Stick” cranes were used, hauling huge nets of cargo from the hold to the pier, or strapped boxes. In the early 1960s there were 30,000 longshoremen in New York alone. Remember the movie “On the waterfront?” That was the old days.
It didn’t take long to figure out that by using a standardized truck container, one that fit any chassis, you could handle the cargo at the factory once, to load the box, and then not touch it again, or open the box for theft, until it reached its destination far away – a warehouse or retail store. This had the advantage of reducing theft and pilferage, a huge problem at every port. It reduced cost by reducing handling time and manpower, and saved lots of time in transit. With special cranes, container ships began to sail on set schedules, port to port, and they’d be tied up for a day or two, not weeks, as the boxes were unloaded and others loaded, to and from trucks. Starting in the United States, within 10 years this system expanded to Europe and then everywhere.
This of course was a huge smack in the face to longshoremen, because you only needed a couple dozen people to unload a container ship, not hundreds. In New York, to enable the handling of such ships, the ship owners instituted thing called GAI, for guaranteed annual income, which was an agreement, to avoid war n the docks, to pay all the idled and registered longshoremen, until they died, because the technology had stolen their job. When I went to work in New York in 1984 the shipowners were paying $ 100,000,000 a year to cover this, but by then the longshoremen were dying of old age. This made shipping through New York expensive. Then people realized you can place containers on trains and haul them very fast hundreds of miles, and, if stacked two-high, efficiently. It took a while, but by the late 1980s a huge new system had developed whereby train routes had tunnels raised so “stack trains” could carry containers inland.
Ships kept getting bigger. The first ones were regular ships carrying containers on deck, Then the first purpose-built container ships were built, carrying 1200 containers. By the late 1980s ships were carrying 4500 containers. Today ships carry 18,000 containers (and many are idle because as usual the system has been way overbuilt).
There were other reasons, of course, but I’d hazard the theory that containers are what made true globalization possible. The scheduled shipments, the cheap cost, the cargo security, meant that a business could start making things where labor was cheapest and then carry the stuff in containers to US markets, and this is exactly what happened.
The infrastructure from container ships, special cranes, computers, electronic billing and payment, rapid delivery, stack trains linking the west coast to the American heartland and east coast, all meant that the entire system of manufacture and delivery changed and saw manufacturing move to Mexico, then Asia, then Southeast Asia. We Americans began receiving clothing, shoes, furniture, you name it, from Japan and China and Vietnam; cars in special auto ships from Korea and Japan and Europe; auto parts in containers from wherever; and especially fresh food from all over the world, shipped in refrigerated containers to American markets. How else do you think we get fresh oranges in February in New York? The oranges are grown in Brazil, placed in reefer containers for the two week voyage, and ripen on the way north. A miracle, one might say.
In 1987 the first “Post Panamax” container ship was built, for APL, the President Truman – a ship too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. This ship was the first of dozens built to carry containers from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal and also from Asia to the US West Coast, then to be loaded onto stack trains for delivery east. By 1990 there were 100 such trains a week carrying cargo this way, and by 2000 over 200. Now, in reaction of the huge growth of west coast ports, and the huge new ships, the Panama Canal has been widened, and is now able to handle the huge ships. Billions have been spent on the Gulf and the east coast to deepen harbors for these ships, using Harbor Maintenance Tax money. However, the new canal’s locks are hard to use and maybe those big ships won’t be coming. That is, if globalization cargo growth continues….
The first and last container ship I worked on was the same President Truman. At the time built (1987) she was the largest container ship in the world. To indicate how fast this all happened, or maybe how old I really am, in 1984 I was in New York (not as a sailor but as a suit) when the first stack train was tried to Chicago, one level of containers, and the rail cars and rough roadbed beat up the cargo. This was three years before the Truman was built. I recall old Port Authority marketing types scoffing at the idea there would ever be cargo hauled through the Suez to New York from Asia. Yet, in 2012, there I was, on the bridge of the same ship, now a rusted old beauty ending her days, sailing as Ordinary to get my time on big tonnage, at the wheel, passing beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, outbound, on that same route. Eight months later, I was aboard her when we took her to Singapore to the breakers. On the way in to Singapore we passed the Emma Maersk, brand new on her maiden voyage, outbound, 18,500 TEUs, huge. We were just a little old rust bucket, yet once the proudest in the world. I felt damn old, watching Emma pass. I am damn old, actually.
This less than 30 year time period embraced the rapid and dramatic sweep of globalization, which has now, five years on, resulted in worldwide adjustment as folks turn their backs on the notion of free trade after seeing their factories close and their towns die. I don’t think most people thought this would happen, those who thought about it. It was the mantra always during those years that free trade and globalization was GOOD. I parroted that when I worked for Ports, and I believed it, too.
Then I sailed with APL for the Sailors Union of the Pacific aboard the Truman, which was one of the about 250 remaining American cargo ships (from a fleet over over 5,000 after World War II) , because globalization and the urge for cheap stuff meant that American sailors and ships died the death of high cost, and if not for the Jones Act and military cargo preference aboard US ships and US sailors we’d have no merchant marine at all.
So, ironically, the trade we U.S. sailors followed hauling containers was in pursuit of a trade system that made the very fact of globalization and now the rage of the working man possible. Now the cry is, bring those jobs back. Some argue that it cannot ever happen.
I wonder, though, as such efforts are made, will bringing those jobs back include bringing American ships and sailors back, too? I sure hope so.