The Evolution of Shipping Containers from Transport to Modifications | The Container Guy

Shipping containers are a part of our everyday life, even if we don’t realize it. When you think of a shipping container, you probably imagine a metal box used for transporting goods. But, in reality, it is much more than that. If the ISO container was not invented, our world would be very different. We would not have access to so many products that we take for granted, and the process of shipping would be much more expensive and slower. It is because sea cans exist that the global economy is what it is. 

But now they are much more than just containers we use to transport goods from one destination to another. Shipping containers are being modified in so many ways today. They are used to build houses, offices, businesses, kiosks and specialized storage units. The evolution of how containers developed from being used as an efficient way to transport goods, and then to storage units, and then houses and offices is fascinating. But where did it all begin?

History of transportation

As with all stories of innovation, one person’s vision always starts with a question and an idea, and Malcolm McLean’s story is no different. But before we get into that, let’s look back at the history of transportation.

The transportation of goods between lands was a common practice for thousands of years. Think about the Egyptians, Romans, Vikings and the British, as they discovered new lands and brought foreign goods home to their people. Back then, the process was never easy, and by the 19th and early 20th centuries that had not changed. The only way to transport goods by ship then was by loading and unloading goods one at a time. 

This process would be made a little easier with the use of ropes, barrels, sacks, and wooden crates, also known as break-bulk shipping. But it was still a very slow, cumbersome and labour-intensive process. In fact, a ship could be docked at port for longer than it is out at sea as dockworkers manhandled cargo in and out of the ship (this could take hours or days). You can imagine this method had a higher risk of accidents, losses, thievery and delays.

During this time, new technologies were being introduced, such as the railways. The railways highlighted just how inefficient and slow shipping by boat was, but there was no other option at this time. It wasn’t until 1948 during WWII that the US Army developed the “Transporter,” a container made of corrugated steel. It was designed after waiting hours at the port to ship goods to the front-line soldiers. The container was later used successfully in the Korean War, and in 1952, it was further developed into the Container Express (CONEX Box).

It wasn’t until four years later in 1956 that Malcolm McLean invented what we now know as shipping containers.

One man’s idea changed the global economy

It started in 1937 when McLean, the then owner of a trucking company, waited all day to deliver cotton bales on his truck to a pier in New Jersey. He watched impatiently as dockworkers carried cargo from the trucks to the ship thinking it was a very inadequate process. He then thought: “Would it not be great if my trailer could simply be lifted up and placed on the ship without its contents being touched?”

It wasn’t until 1956 that McLean made his idea of intermodal containers into reality. He bought the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, which he renamed SeaLand Service Inc., and began developing shipping containers. He converted the World War II Tanker, Potrero Hills, into a ship capable of handling containers. It took its first voyage from Newark to Houston on April 26, 1956, carrying 58 containers and 15,000 tons of petroleum.

Although there were similar steel boxes already being used on railways, the idea of moving a container from one transport to another without the need to take everything out was revolutionary. It changed the way transportation operated completely, restructuring and reinventing an industry that was stuck in the “traditional” process of break-bulk shipping. 

When his idea resulted in less expense, quicker shipping, and eliminated several steps in the transporting process, many ports across the world redesigned their port sites to support an intermodal transport system. And those same shipping containers, with minor changes, are still being used across the world every day to deliver goods, changing the globalization process forever.

The evolution of shipping containers

Shipping containers are seen everywhere nowadays, but not just in transportation. Because containers must meet certain requirements to be used in transportation, there are millions of unshippable containers out there. And because it is costly to recycle them into other steel products, many people reuse them in different ways as storage units, office facilities and houses.

Container modification is a huge market right now, especially with how popular container homes are becoming. Container modification is revolutionizing many industries from construction to farming, to energy and mining, creating modified shipping containers to store hazardous materials or building portable offices that can last up to 25 years. 

Many individuals are using shipping containers for different projects, whether that be art pieces, sewing rooms or storing their ATVs safely. There is a huge market for shipping containers since they are the most secure, rodent-proof, wind and watertight, and versatile structures out there.

And with modification accessories such as vents, doors, windows, shelving and security, containers are becoming the go-to for companies and individuals who need specialized storage, offices or project rooms.

From a revolutionary idea that changed global transportation to a container that can be modified into practically anything you can think of, shipping containers have certainly evolved as an industry. And this is just the beginning. 

The Container Guy specializes in modifying shipping containers to best suit your needs, whether that be a modified storage unit, an office facility or a specialized project. We also have a wide range of container accessories that are easy and quick to install. For a quote, contact us at (306)262-2899 or email You can also check out our website,