Containers: A European Invention, Rediscovered

Shipping containers are not an entirely American innovation that transformed the world of freight shipping in the post-war period. Their roots are actually most likely European: development of the first “frames” (as they were called in France; in Britain they were already called “freight containers”, and in the U.S.A., “lift vans”) accompanied the revolution in passenger travel in the 19th century. Cross-Channel traffic between France and England was a scene of tremendous experimentation. The technical principles of containers were established in the period between the two world wars, thanks in particular to British rail companies and to the work of the International Chamber of Commerce. After World War II, the dynamic of innovation switched, as for everything else, to American businesses, which set the technical standards for containers.

“Container” ships in the port of Marseille, glass projection plaque, early 20th century. début du XXe siècle
“Container” ships in the port of Marseille, glass projection plaque, early 20th century. Source : Fonds Colbert

The practically official history of the shipping container has retained two dates: 1956 for Malcolm McLean’s invention of the “box,” and 1966 for its arrival in Europe. In actual fact, the story is older than that, because its roots go back to the 19th century… and can be found in Europe. Reintegrating the object, which is emblematic of contemporary globalization, into a longer trajectory leads, therefore, to a change of perspective. Rather than trying to understand how the innovation reached Europe in the 1960s, the idea is more to explore both its roots and its return, in an optimized format, to the Old World.

In the Beginning Was the Frame

In the 1920s and 1930s, the transportation and trans-shipment of diverse manufactured goods was slow, relative to denser materials like coal, due to technical issues. Loading, unloading and stowing manufactured goods in a variety of different kinds of packaging (boxes, sacks, bundles, bales, barrels, etc.) took up a lot of time.

This was true despite the fact that shippers had been experimenting with techniques for optimizing transportation for that type of freight for a long time. The invention of the earliest standardized containers was probably related to passengers crossing the English Channel or the Atlantic Ocean.  In the 1890s, a “loading frame” was designed to hold several passengers’ baggage.  It was a sturdy crate, designed to facilitate trans-shipment from the wagon on which it arrived to the hold of the ship. Cranes would hoist the frame from the wagon with a sling.

The stowage system was equally innovative. On land, four baggage crates of standard dimensions could be transported on open, 8.5 meter (approx. 28-foot)-long flat-bed wagons. On the water, the crates were placed on two levels in the ocean liners’ holds, which were equipped with self-stowing devices: rollers engaged in lengthwise runners. That system was first used in 1897-1898 by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Nord (a rail company serving northern France, also called the Compagnie du Nord) then by the South Eastern Railway, in Britain, shortly before World War I.

Establishing the Shipping Container System Between the Two World Wars

When World War I ended, Alsace-Lorraine’s reintegration into France offered the port of Dunkirk an opportunity to enlarge the area it serviced. So the managers of the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Nord created a subsidiary, the Alsace-Lorraine-Angleterre (England), or ALA, in 1925. The ALA’s purpose was to take advantage of the ships plying the newly established route between Dunkirk and Tilbury, a port serving London. From its creation, the ALA planned to use those sorting frames, or crates, from door to door, because instructions were that they were to be “filled by the sender and delivered by lorry to the recipients.” 

In Britain, the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) was the precursor in the domain. The agreement signed between France’s ‘Nord’ network and the LMS made it possible to ship crates from Basel to London. Use of the frame soon spread to British rail companies, where it was referred to as a “container” by the late 1920s.  For a sense of scale, the Compagnie du Nord had a fleet of 50 frames, when the LMS alone had 1,500. The container dynamic soon switched to Britain. Moreover, engineers from the Compagnie du Nord believed that they should adopt the English model. 

Port directors’ and shipowners’ reactions shed some light on both the promises and the problems raised by the frames’ growing popularity. In 1930, when the Association des Grands Ports Français (AGPF, or Organization of Large French Ports) polled its members, the results of the survey revealed three main obstacles to frames’ development: their construction costs were too high, they were too bulky, and handling them was difficult without mechanical means. The Comité Central des Armateurs de France (the CCAF, or Central Committee of French Shipowners) recommended that, in order to be loaded efficiently, the containers should adopt a single set of standards. 

Standardization was also the solution in the eyes of the International Chamber of Commerce, which was trying to promote the spread of the “bundling frame” as part of a logic of coordination in shipping. That was partly why the Chamber founded the Bureau International des Containers et du Transport Intermodal (BIC) in 1933. The Bureau established the following definition of a container: “A recipient designed to contain goods that are loosely or lightly packed, specifically in order to transport them without the need of intermediaries or container changes, by any one means of locomotion or a combination of several of them. A container should be sufficiently sturdy to make several trips without requiring repair; its size and shape should be thought out in such a way as to enable quick and easy handling and to efficiently protect its contents from damage; its design should allow for loading the goods it is meant to contain quickly; containers’ closing mechanisms – aside from open containers – should not require nails, screws or hoops and should efficiently protect the contents from the risk of looting. In order to be recognized as such, a shipping container must have an interior size of at least 1 cubic meter.” All of the contemporary features of a shipping container were already included in that definition.

Containers Come Back to Europe

Therefore, Malcolm McLean’s (1913-2001) invention should be put into perspective. The development of the “box” that transformed the transportation of a range of types of freight is, more profoundly, the result of a set of older experiments and considerations that came together in the period between the two world wars. It is true that, along with the engineer Keith Tantlinger (1919-2011), the American businessman successfully combined various pre-existing systems, bringing shipping containers from the margins to the heart of freight shipping. The standard size is 20 feet (6.10 m.) long by 8 feet (2.4 m.) wide and 8.5 feet (2.5 m.) tall. Not only were the containers’ dimensions standardized, but the fixation points were as well. 

Limited for about a decade to navigating along the eastern coast of North America, container transportation arrived in Europe in 1966 with the first trans-Atlantic crossing of a container ship, from New York to Antwerp (Belgium). For the European freight-shipping sector, it was, therefore, more of a rediscovery than a discovery, so it’s easy to understand why the people in charge of major European ports immediately showed an interest in the “box.” In fact, that same year, 1966, the port of Marseille, which is France’s largest cargo port, established a working group on the subject. Before the end of the year, the group suggested that container ships could be received at the port’s Mourepiane terminal, where two 18-ton cranes were paired with vast open space for loading and unloading. The Marseille subsidiary of La Compagnie Maritime des Chargeurs Réunis (United Shippers) began working with container ships in 1968. Nevertheless, French ports soon fell behind their main European competitors, like Antwerp and Rotterdam, due to a pronounced specialization in receiving and refining crude oil.

To quote from this article

Bruno Marnot , « Containers: A European Invention, Rediscovered », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 03/05/24 , consulted on 17/06/2024. Permalink :


Anonyme, « Le transport de marchandises avec séparation des éléments de roulement et de chargement », Le génie civil, n° 16, 1933, p. 375-377.

Borde, Christian, « La genèse du système des containers, entre route, rail et navigation maritime (1896-1956) », in Jean-François Eck, Pierre Tilly, Béatrice Touchelay (dir.), Espaces portuaires. L’Europe du Nord à l’interface des économies et des cultures, xixe-xxe siècle (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2015), p. 147-158.

Frémont, Antoine, Conteneurisation et mondialisation. Les logiques des armements de lignes régulières, HDR Dissertation in Geography, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2005.