The incredible back story of that shipping container

March 25, 2019

You know that shipping container. Yes that one. The one you used to move overseas. The one you saw at the railway crossing last week. The one you reverse past every time you park your car at work.


Well, that ISO shipping container contains a fascinating and awe inspiring story about human progress in the latter 20th Century. I promise. It is a Pandora's box of war, politics, and trade all rolled into one, and it has made your life so much more convenient than you will ever know. Who'd have thought you were rolling past such a bestselling novel every day? Well you do, we all do.


The standard ISO shipping container measures 8ft wide by 20ft or 40ft long. You see them everywhere, most notably on cargo ships (by the thousands). A 20ft ISO container has a capacity of 33.1 cubic metres. You can fit a lot in one container!


So how did these familiar rectangles come about? Well if you've ever stopped at Albury Wodonga en route by train from Melbourne to Sydney, you will understand. The two adjoining Australian states developed different track gauges, so a train cannot simply roll on through.


This is an issue that was found in transporting goods ever since the advent of early train travel, which was an early step to the global mass movement of goods that we know today. However let's imagine that you have boxed up your items and put them on your horse cart, moved them to the train station. You then had to awkwardly move them on to the train, ensuring they were restrained properly to avoid damage and then the same process undertaken at port. Then reverse this at the other end. It's a wonder that goods ever made it to their destination.


Following the Second World War, the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) was formed and this standardized many common approaches to rebuilding and advancing the war torn states - from the ground up. Since that time, the world has experienced the biggest phase of exponential growth, wealth creation and technological advancement ever seen. This has been made possible by facilitating global trade en masse and with greater convenience. The intermodal shipping container is at the very core of this.


If you decide to move from London to Brisbane, you can pack up your 20 or 40 footer and a truck with exactly the right dimensions will pick it up with greatest of ease and transport it to the train or to the port itself. If it does happen to travel by train, it travels on wagons that are of exactly the right dimensions so as to ensure adequate weight distribution and security of load.


Once the Stevedores get hold of your worldly possessions at port, their impressive cranes lift it on to the container ship alongside all of it's cousins and it safely makes its way out across the big blue. At the other end - well you get the picture.


Such is the power of a common approach. Such is the significance of standards. 




Each ISO container has a plaque containing it's own ISO identification number. They are easy to spot. They are built to the same specifications as all others (With the only differences being different size and construction for different applications) and their availability and commonality has supported the world that we have built around us. They truly are a simple marvel of modern trade and manufacturing.


So, the next time you reverse past that ISO container into your parking space, just remember that it may be a metal box, but it represents so much more.


Oliver Kelly is the Principal Consultant of i40, an Australian based Risk, ISO System and People advisory firm with a forward thinking approach. More information on our business can be found at

Tags: Quality, QMS, Customer satisfaction

Share on Facebook
Please reload

Featured Posts

INFOGRAPHIC - The Journey to ISO Implementation

July 13, 2019

Please reload

Recent Posts

November 23, 2019

September 23, 2019

Please reload

Please reload

Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square