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2006 05 14
The Magic Box: The Real History of Shipping Containers
One just has to look at the Toronto Harbour to see the changes that the shipping container has wrought. Back in the late fifties and early sixties the Harbour was on the cusp of a boom- the St Lawrence seaway was going to make Toronto a major international port and the Harbour Commissioners, with as much vision and foresight then as they have now, rushed to build the Outer Harbour to accommodate the increasing demand.

Then the standardized ISO shipping container hit the scene and Halifax and Vancouver became Toronto’s deepwater ports, and the CP and CN rail yards in Etobicoke and Concord became our real ports of call for goods from around the world, Bringing them to this city on CN and CP’s “Land Bridge” of rails.

On Friday The National Post picked up a wire service article on the “Birthday of the box”, celebrating 50 years of shipping containers, based on Marc Levinson’s book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the Economy Bigger. Levinson makes the case that Malcom Mclean invented the shipping container and built the first container ship. Bruce Mau said the same thing in his “Massive Change” exhibition.
Too bad that it is not true- the White Pass and Yukon company was shipping them to Whitehorse in 1953. It was the first full intermodal international transport system- moving containers from the shipper’s Vancouver warehouse by ship to Skagway, Alaska, then overland by truck and rail. “after loading, the containers are locked, sealed for customs, and shipped to the Yukon without further handling until they are opened by Yukon consignees”
The first real container ship went into service in 1955, again, two years before Sea-Land (McLean’s company) started service to Puerto Rico with oddly sized (35’) boxes.

At first the advance of containers was held back by the difficulty of getting the boxes off the trucks- there was not yet the infrastructure of cranes at rail yards to get the boxes off trailers. A Canadian company (Steadman Industries) was at the forefront of development of handling equipment to move containers from train to truck, and from truck to end user. They worked with visionary Canadian electronics manufacturer, Electrohome of Kitchener, to develop a practical system, which CN and CP saw as the solution. Once the worldwide ISO standard dimensions were agreed to in 1964 the rail lines could start building the world’s first coast to coast container capable network.
In the absence of the massive cranes used today, they used modified trailers and rail cars developed by Steadman Industries. My father, Gabriel Alter, was president, and Peter Hunter, who wrote “The Magic Box” – A history of Containerization 13 years before Marc Levinson, worked for him.
They had a lot of fun and did some remarkable things- when everybody thinks that making buildings out of containers is a new thing, they were building warehouses in the Arctic where goods were shipped north in containers which were lined up in two rows, special end and roof panels stuck on the top and ends, and workers could just open up the boxes and work in comfort. In the spring they would close up the boxes and take the building away.

Ultimately the industry became too big for Steadman Industries. It had morphed into Interpool, one of the first container leasing companies, which bought boxes all over the world. The head offices moved from Toronto to New York and it eventually was sold to European interests and survives to this day. The sold-off Steadman operation on Belfield road eventually went bankrupt.

But nothing changes the fact that Gabriel Alter and Peter Hunter of Steadman helped Ron Lawless of CN and Don Francis of CP built one of the first and best container transport systems in the world, a direct descendant of the White Pass and Yukon Route of 1953, when Malcom Mclean was still a North Carolina truck driver.

Happy 53rd birthday, Magic Box!

[email this story] Posted by Lloyd Alter on 05/14 at 06:54 AM

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