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!