How big is a shipping container?

A standard ISO 20 foot freight container has inside dimensions of 19’5” (length) by 7’8” (wide) by 7’9.5” (high). The container itself weighs 4189 pounds, and has a dry capacity of 48,721 pounds, and a volume of 1,165 cubic feet. These are immutable facts, set by the International Organization for Standardization. You can purchase a handbook from the ISO that tells you everything you want to know about shipping containers.

To send a 20 foot container full of food from the U.S. east coast to the port of Rotterdam costs about $1700 US.

The “founding father of the freight container” was Malcolm McLean, who died in 2001. In a tribute to McLean, United States Commissioner of Customs, Robert C. Bonner related the history:

Malcolm McLean invented the shipping container in the 1930s in New Jersey, while sitting at a dock waiting all day for cargo he had carried there in his truck to be reloaded onto a ship. He figured out a better way to pack goods and transport them by sea — which was to secure them in large steel boxes that could be easily loaded onto ships. And in so doing he came up with an idea that changed the face of global trade.

SeaLand, the company that McLean founded, is now Maersk-Sealand, having merged with the Maersk Line in 1999. It’s difficult to drive down any highway, or through any port, anywhere, without seeing a container with Maersk painted on the side.


Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 19:19 Permalink

There was a lot of post-9-11 talk about shipping containers being the weakest link in the controls the U.S. would like to have on immigration and importation. News stories made it sound like there’s a lot of research going on into technologies with which to retrofit them to make them tamper resistant and/or tamper evident, as well as into technologies to detect unwanted cargo (people, bombs) without having to empty and search them physically (effectively impossible, because there are too many). As the dimensions you cite handily show, Peter, a container indeed conceals a large volume of stuff. It’s a long way from the tip of a sniffer-dog’s nose to the center of a container, and X-rays don’t penetrate steel. So if it’s not neutrons they’ve started using on randomly selected containers, I think they’re using gamma rays to see through them (great, so now instead of 2-inch tropical bugs that come strolling out of containers it will be 20ft mutated bugs that come out). But even using a form of illumination that can penetrate the box, because of it’s capacity, often you will be seeing so many items superimposed in cross-section that the picture can be impossible to interpret. So the pundits say it may always be easy to hide things in them.

Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 19:31 Permalink

I just remembered something else I heard about containers: A woman I once dated in the international port city of Oakland, Calif, was a “container broker.” She told me that some of her customers were private citizens who would buy containers to live or work in. Cubic centimeter per cubic centimeter, they represent very cheap architecture, apparently. I don’t know if the customers would retrofit them with windows or anything. I imagine they park them in a lot.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 25, 2003 - 19:35 Permalink

In this month’s dwell magazine there’s an interesting article about a prefab house design competition. One of the entries used shipping containers as building blocks, and spaced them apart to make spaces for windows and doors. I have a friend who uses a shipping container as a storage shed for his remotely-located blueberry growing operation.

Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 19:50 Permalink

I had thought this living-in-container-business was an obscure fact, but with the help of Google it almost ends up looking like a trend.

Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 20:02 Permalink…
is another free article online which seems to be broader and more about the container avante guard. I seem unable to contain myself.

Mark's picture
Mark on June 25, 2003 - 20:06 Permalink

Dang you oliver for not making your links clickable…Seems all but impossible to copy\paste from the comments…

Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 20:15 Permalink

I would love to know how to make my links clickable. Everybody seems to know how to format their comments on Peter’s site but me. Peter, could you be persuaded to make a instruction page or a link out to some other person’s instructions, in case the rules are common?

Mark's picture
Mark on June 25, 2003 - 22:46 Permalink

Oliver i think standard html should do it. “Name Link Here” ..Minus the whole “” deals…Tis just that easy…Maybe peter could be persuaded into making the txt on the site easier to copy as well ;-)..

Mark's picture
Mark on June 25, 2003 - 22:48 Permalink

hmm..poo…the ” ” around the actual code didnt quite seem to work….lets try this (a href=”insert link here”)Name Link Here(/a) ..Replacing the ( ) with < >

Oliver B.'s picture
Oliver B. on June 25, 2003 - 23:09 Permalink

Um, so are we talking like this…?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 27, 2003 - 01:58 Permalink

If you want to get a sense of the size of a 20’ shipping container, and you’re in Charlottetown this weekend, there are several of them parked out in the back half of Confederation Landing Park.

RICHARD's picture
RICHARD on October 3, 2003 - 04:37 Permalink

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Graeme Addis's picture
Graeme Addis on November 11, 2003 - 05:58 Permalink

for peter and oliver