Coal mining areas of late 1700s England were the first to use containers for moving freight. Wagons drawn by horses carried coal from Butterfly Ironworks to canal barges. By the mid-1800s manufacturers took advantage of the growing railroads to transport freight across land. By the early 20th century, shipping containers carrying coal between the mines and barges adopted a closed top design, allowing containers to carry other types of goods. Around this same time, Americans were using boxcars and platform containers to ship freight.
Before 1955, manufacturers used wooden boxes to transport freight over long distances and between continents, but these were susceptible to theft and not always watertight. Malcom McLean spent two decades building up his family’s trucking business before his involvement in overseas shipping. During World War II, he worked with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop a way to more efficiently transport freight via cargo ships. Working together, they designed the metal freight containers we know today. Cranes lifted this new container more easily. The boxes stacked neatly, avoiding wasting precious cargo space upon ships. Steel alloys used to make the boxes created a natural protective coating, making them wind and water tight.
After obtaining a patent on the designs, the two men decided to give the patent over to the shipping industry, an act that standardized shipping containers worldwide and made it easier to trade worldwide.
The book Expanded Discussion: of the Method for Converting Shipping Containers into a Habitable Steel Building explains that in 1987 a man by the name of Philip C. Clark filed for a patent described as “Method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building at a building site and the product thereof.” It was two years before the patent received approval, but it was well worth the wait as it inspired other architects to think outside of the box when recycling shipping containers for use as building materials. During the Gulf War the military used containers as both makeshift shelters for soldiers and containment systems for Iraqi prisoners. Sandbags along the outside walls fortified the structures and protected against certain types of weapons, like grenades.
Due to the sheer amount of goods coming to North America from other countries, ports find themselves with a surplus of used freight containers. Overseas manufacturers find it cheaper to use new containers than have empty ones returned. When this happens, used freight containers are then sold, either directly by the port or manufacturers, or to the highest bidder at auction. Creative architects recycle used cargo containers into inexpensive housing and single-unit retail spaces, and some go a step further to design entire container cities that balance a combination of residential and retail spaces. When it comes to ideas for how humans can recycle used shipping and freight containers, the sky is the limit. Perhaps future generations will see space stations and celestial housing built from used shipping containers.