Anniversary Post: SS Ideal X

SS Ideal X - Container Ship

On this day in 1956, the SS Ideal X was launched. It was the world’s first successful container ship. Actually, before that, it had been an oil tanker from World War II. But it was purchased by Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and converted into a container ship. It carried 58 containers. Compare this to the biggest container ships today that carry in excess of 10,000 containers. It is truly remarkable.

Now the Ideal X was not the first container ship. That would be the Clifford J Rogers. But I don’t think that’s quite fair, because it didn’t transport the standard twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers. And the whole purpose of container ships is that they are standardized. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be important.

If you are an American and you are out of work, it is probably because of container ships. Well, not completely. There are lots of political reasons. But without container ships, those wouldn’t matter that much. Think of the total crap that comes to this country from China — things like toy rings that kids get in gumball machines. The only reason that it is profitable to make this junk is that the transportation costs are greatly reduced. Container ships allow that.

All this talk of globalization being about allowing companies to get the cheapest labor is true. But if it was expensive to transport the goods, it just wouldn’t happen. And one thing you will notice is that America still does a fair amount of manufacturing of cheap stuff. It is just that it is on a small scale. It might be reasonable to produce a million plastic rings in China, but if it is only 100,000, the transportation costs make it cheaper to produce here.

I certainly think that container ships have had a far bigger effect on the world than computers. And of course, if resources were shared somewhat equitably, container ships would have been a much bigger benefit to everyone. Instead, they have more or less facilitated taking money from the poorer people in the developed world and giving it to the poor people in the developing world. And that’s overall a good thing. But along the way, it shouldn’t have been that the rich have simply gotten unimaginably richer — largely because of a technological advance that they had nothing to do with.

Happy birthday container ships!

6 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: SS Ideal X

  1. The wild thing about those mega ships with thousands of containers? Well, all those containers on deck act like a giant sail. It’s normally not a problem, as weather forecasting is so improved now and ships can steer well clear of big storms. Once in a blue moon, though, if a ship gets hit by a freak storm, it can rock dangerously from side-to-side. And there have been times, very rarely, where to save the ship they just unbuckle the top layers of containers and let them fall off. So you end up with 10000 pairs of Nikes floating ashore in Alaska or wherever. It’s happened!

  2. I’m going to stay carefully agnostic with regard to the political and economic implications of container shipping, but: the logistics and mechanics of it are unexpectedly fascinating. One of my favorite technology-heavy podcasts is omega tau, and the first episode I ever listened to was on container shipping. A random comment on an Ars Technica article made me a little bit curious, but I cued up the audio thinking that I’d listen for a few minutes – surely the subject was far too dull to hold my interest. Nope! When the show wrapped up after a bit more than 2 hours, it left me wanting more. Seriously recommended.

    (The host of the English episodes, Markus, is a glider pilot and an aviation enthusiast, so there are a lot of aviation-themed episodes; probably my all-time favorite was Flying the Concorde.)

    • I don’t blame technologies for the uses that evil humans put them to. Container ships should make everyone better off. The fact that they don’t is not the fault of them. Container ships are great.

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