Containerization is a modern phenomenon of the last thirty years. As with so many ideas, it is based on a simple concept.: the moving of cargo over long distances in a reusable, sealed, standard box by means of a relay between different modes of transport on land and sea.
For centuries land transport was hampered by bad or non-existent roads. On the other hand, by the late 19th century travel by water had became cheaper, faster and more comfortable. However, transshipment gave opportunity for both pilferage of and damage to cargo.
With the Industrial Revolution, the building of rail networks and tarmacadam road surfaces permitted a transport infrastructure to develop in the early 20th century giving rise to a more efficient means of transferring cargo. Some problems remained however, such as the interface between one mode of transport and the other.
The need for intermodal capability was first addressed by the household removal trade, handling goods highly susceptible to damage and having a complete lack of homogeneousness. In the second half of the 19th century furniture lift vans, capable of being lifted on and off vehicles, were introduced. The next 100 years saw the proliferation of boxes until early in the 1950s the need to standardize the diversity and size of boxes already in use in the world became evident, and the adoption and co-ordination by the International Organization for Standards (ISO) of recommendations covering all aspects of containerization was introduced.
Since World War II increasing unionization resulted in frequent strikes and restricted practices, leading to delays to ships, consequential financial losses and difficulties in meeting commitments. Containerization became the means of overcoming these difficulties, even though this change from a labour to a capital intensive operation meant large investments in new ships, cargo handling equipment, and the building of new ports to accommodate the new giant container ships, adjacent container terminals, unpacking and packing depots.
Progress since then has been rapid, with a widening range of container types being made available to satisfy the different trades and commodities. Simultaneously, the network of container ports and terminals has grown, connecting a world-wide web of road, rail and sea infrastructures and services.
Containerization was introduced to South Africa late in 1975 with the building of container terminals in the main ports, including Johannesburg (City Deep) which, for containerization purposes, is considered a port, and the commissioning of a new, fully cellular container fleet from the second half of 1977.
This simple idea, which produced the intermodal container industry, has generated a transport revolution that has radically changed shipping concepts developed over the last 20 centuries, and has bridged cultures and different commercial practices.