Shipping Container Inventor Transformed World Trade

Sep 7, 2011
Originally published on September 7, 2011 2:13 pm
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NEAL CONAN, host: The shipping container has become so universal it's hard to imagine a world where goods were shipped in barrels and crates. These days, books, food items and electronics from across the globe arrive on your doorstep, and the cost of shipping is almost negligible, all thanks to an engineer who figured out how to make containers safe to stack on ships. His invention is often cited as paving the way for globalization. Keith Tantlinger passed away on Aug. 27 at the age of 92.

Here to help remember him is Marc Levinson, a journalist, historian and author of "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger." He's with us here in Studio 3A. And thanks very much.

MARC LEVINSON: My pleasure.

CONAN: And Keith Tantlinger obviously did not invent the box that preceded him, but what he did was make a better corner.

LEVINSON: What he did was a whole host of things that transformed the concept of containerization into a commercial reality. The idea of putting freight into a container is an old one. The idea of actually turning it into a commercially viable business was a very difficult one. The idea of actually turning it into a commercially viable business was a very difficult one. It began in the mid-1950s. And Tantlinger invented many of the things people don't even notice or know about today that made it possible to do this.

CONAN: For instance?

LEVINSON: For instance, if you look at a container, if you're in your car, look at the nearest truck and you'll see what I mean. There are eight corners - four at the top, four at the bottom - and each of those has a little steel fitting with some holes in it. Tantlinger invented a version of that fitting, and he invented a little device that could slip into it and lock and could quickly be removed from it and unlock. With that device called a twistlock, you could stack several containers together. A crane could reach down, quickly latch onto a container, lift it, deposit it somewhere, set it down and quickly release it so you could speed up the entire process of shipping.

CONAN: And it sounds so obvious. I mean, one of those - of course, somewhat I - it wasn't so obvious then.

LEVINSON: It wasn't so obvious. And there were many such things. Many containers are taken from ships and placed on the back of trucks. You see them on the highway every day. Well, if you think about it, if you're sitting hundred feet up in the sky in a container crane, it's not so easy to find the truck chassis exactly perfectly.

One of the things Tantlinger invented was a device that makes it a lot easier to get it right the first time so that when the crane operator puts the container on the truck chassis, it fits right and locks right into place.

CONAN: We're talking about the man who built a better box.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Keith Tantlinger invented this for the company that later became Sea-Land. He was working as an engineer and consultant for them and also pressed for the company to let go its patents so this could become a universal system.

LEVINSON: Tantlinger was hired by a man named Malcom McLean. And Malcom McLean was the man who really pushed the idea of turning containerization into a viable business. McLean's practice - he was a visionary. He was the blue sky thinker, and his practice was to say - to people, this is what I want to do. You figure out how to get it done, and Tantlinger was one of the guys who got it done. Without actually doing these really difficult technical things, creating these inventions, the box never would have flourished as it has.

One of the very important stages in that process was standardization. Imagine you have a factory. You've made some goods. You've put those goods into a container that's 33 feet long. The container is taken to a port. There's a ship at the port, but it can only handle containers that are 40 feet long. What's going to happen to your container? It's going to sit there. Or maybe it goes to Japan, and it gets to the port in Japan and the crane there that lift containers can't handle a 33-foot container. It can only handle a 35-foot container.

So the process had to be standardized around the world, and Tantlinger had a key role in that. His design for the corner of each container was released by Malcom McLean. It had been patented by Sea-Land, and it became the standard for use for any ship line that wanted to use it. So it enabled the standardization of containerization worldwide.

CONAN: So that the container that you see on the back of the truck next to you on the highway is the same as the container that's in Tokyo or in Berlin or in Kazakhstan.

LEVINSON: And if you want to use one, if you're a shipper, you don't have to worry if the people at the other end of the voyage are going to be able to handle it. You know it'll work.

CONAN: And it has reduced the cost of shipping. Shipping by sea is so much less expensive than anything else. But this reduced the cost of shipping by sea because it virtually - I don't think the longshoreman might remember Keith Tantlinger as profoundly as you or I.

LEVINSON: The container reduced the cost of cargo handling by sea. And then, of course, at the port, it gets put directly onto perhaps a double-stack train and travels nonstop halfway across the country, so the movement is much more fluid, much more rapid, and you don't have individual pieces of cargo being handled. The result of that is that many, many goods are much cheaper for consumers.

CONAN: And this system took over. How quickly did it take for this system to take over and become the dominant shipping method around the world?

LEVINSON: Modern containerization got started in the United States in 1956. It - the first container ship across the Atlantic was about a decade later, and it was really 1970, that timeframe, when containerization across the Pacific started gathering steam. So it took a period of time. Ports had to be adapted. They had to install cranes and different kinds of wharfs. Ships had to be built. After all, there weren't any ships designed for containers. And so there was a transition period. But by the late '70s, the container was almost universal in international trade.

CONAN: And did Keith Tantlinger, obviously, live long enough to see his idea change the world?

LEVINSON: His saw his idea change the world, and he went on to invent many other things. He had a long and, I think, very enjoyable career as an inventor. I had the pleasure of meeting him once. And not only had he done a lot of things, he seemed to really have enjoyed the many things he had the opportunity to do.

CONAN: Keith Tantlinger died at the end of last month at the age of 92 after a long and successful career and will be remembered as one of those engineers who, well, made things very different for everybody else on the planet. Marc Levinson, thank you very much for your time today.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Marc Levinson, a journalist and historian. His new book, "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America," was published this week. Congratulations on that. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, big hits have long been celebrated as part of pro-football. As evidence bounced that those hits can cause serious brain damage, the NFL adopts new rules, but how much can change on the field before football isn't football anymore. We'll talk about the future of the game. That's tomorrow in this hour on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.