The container: a brilliant invention


Some 20 million containers are sailing on the world’s oceans as you are reading this story.

Every day, some 20 million steel boxes transport shoes and coats, oranges and grain, computers and books, medicine and toys … in brief, almost everything that we use in our daily lives … from one end of the world to the other.

Brilliant invention

The shipping container was invented 1956, but its popularity really took off in the 1960s. The Port of Montreal handled its first container in 1967, the year of Expo 67. Their use spread throughout the world during the 1980s.

Container terminal at the Port of Montreal


At the Port of Montreal, containerized cargo represents almost half of all of the goods loaded or unloaded on our berths. In 2014, we handled 1.4 million TEU containers; TEU stands for “twenty-foot equivalent unit.” It’s a measure used internationally and based on the length of the first containers, which were 20 feet long. Today, there are different lengths of containers, up to 54 feet.

Containers belong to shipping lines. Each container has an identification number and is registered. The container revolutionized the transportation of goods. The main advantage is uniformity. Containers are all 8 feet (243.84 cm) wide, which means they can be placed on any ship, truck or train, anywhere in the world. Cargo-handling equipment is adjusted to this universal width.

Solid and secure

Refrigerated container

When seen from afar, stacked on port terminals, containers look like giant building blocks. Solid and easy to handle, they speed up loading and unloading operations. A container ship can be unloaded and reloaded in only two days. Previously, it would have taken a good week to do the same job. Moreover, cargo breakage, damage and theft have been substantially reduced now that goods move in these well-protected, locked steel boxes.

By facilitating handling operations, the container has also reduced transportation costs. The cost to load one tonne of cargo has gone from $5.86 to $0.16.

Tank container

The concept has been refined over time and today there are many different types of containers. The first containers were 20 feet long. Today, there are containers that are 30, 40 and more than 50 feet long. There are temperature-controlled containers – refrigerated or heated – and ventilated containers for transporting perishable goods such as fruits and medicine. There are controlled-atmosphere containers that slow down or accelerate the ripening of fruits or vegetables.

Open-top container

There are tank containers used to transport liquid or gaseous products. Other types have an open top, which allows cargo to be loaded vertically, or folding sidewalls for transporting oversized cargo. Other containers are used to transport clothes that are on hangars! Others are collapsible and can be easily stacked when travelling empty. And there are probably still other types of containers yet to be seen …

At left: container for clothes on hangers. At right: collapsible container.








Other uses

Some 500,000 containers are removed from the transportation network each year; many of them are used for other things. They are transformed into houses, restaurants, offices, storefront offices … the only limit to their use is imagination!

This restaurant in a container gets closed up after opening hours. It is the concept of Montreal company MUVBOX. The rerstaurant in the photo is located in the Old Port and serves lobster from the Magdalen Islands.
These Container City container-houses in London resemble Habitat 67 in Cité-du-Havre in Montreal.
Containers provide a modern and original look to residences. There are infinite possibilities.
Quebec winters pose an energy challenge to houses made out of containers as metal is a thermal conductor. Insulation must be well planned.
The new Cogeco amphitheatre ticket office in Trois-Rivières.
Containers even inspire artists! Here is a sculpture at Yamashita Park in Yokohama, Japan...
... and another near the market at Louise Basin in Quebec City.