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Video Tip: How Cargo Ships Transformed the World Economy

January 27, 2015

containerships_v2_0“The MSC Oscar, launched earlier this month, has the greatest capacity of any container ship on the planet,” writes Vox (Jan.22, 2015). It can carry over 19,200 20-foot shipping containers. That’s enough space for 117 million pairs of sneakers or 39,000 cars or 900 million cans of dog food. And it’s just the latest stage in the explosive growth of container ships since they debuted in the 1950s.But it probably won’t hold the title for long: For the last several years, the record has been broken every year. To understand how container ships got so huge, you have to go back 60 years, when overseas shipping was so cumbersome and expensive that many companies simply choose not to try. This short (2.5 min.) video explains the origins of the container ship and how they drastically changed the world.

Until 1956, most international cargo was manually packed in the holds of shipping boats by dock workers, and manually unloaded when it reached port. That year, a North Carolina trucking company owner had the idea to use cranes to directly load truck trailers onto the ship and debuted the Ideal Xthe very first container ship, a converted tanker that could carry 58 containers. In 1957, he launched the much-larger Gateway City, which could hold 226 containers, stacked in racks. Other companies copied his methods, and shipping containers now come in standardized sizes (they are now 8 feet wide, 20 or 40 feet long). By the end of the 1970s, the majority of consumer goods coming to the US were being shipped by container.

It’s hard to overstate how much all of this has changed the world economy. Before the container ship, transoceanic shipping was so expensive that it didn’t make sense to send most goods around the world. Now, it’s cheap — which, combined with-free trade policies, means that vendors in wealthy countries can efficiently take advantage of cheap labor abroad. For the American consumer, it means that the vast majority of goods — shoes, clothes, flat-screen TVs, basketballs, even toothbrushes — come from abroad, via container.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How have these cargo ships changed global economies?

2. What are the complications from the growing sizes of the ships?

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