Keith Tantlinger- The Story of the Man Who Invented the Shipping Cargo Container

The world today marvels at the capaciousness and practicality of cargo storage containers. It is a well-known fact that transportation of marine cargo through containers in the past has never been as easy as it is now. And the credit for coming up with such a practical and workable container model unequivocally belongs to Keith Tantlinger.

The 92-year-old who shaped the entire cargo shipping community by revolutionising cargo containers passed away on the 27th of August 2011. And while his death might not be significant to many, for the international shipping community in its entirety, Keith Tantlinger’s death has left a void that can never be fulfilled.

Who was Keith Tantlinger?

Keith Tantlinger

Born in 1919 in California, the inventor of cargo containers was professionally qualified as a mechanical engineer from the University of California and, in addition to designing highly structured shipping containers, held patented rights to over 70 instrumentations in the field of transportation.

During the second world war, he worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company and designed parts for the production of the B-17 bomber.

In the 1950s, he became the Vice President of Engineering at Brown Industries and manufactured truck trailers in Spokane, Washington. It was during those days that he received a call from the owner of Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation, Malcolm P. Mclean, who wanted him to develop a way to stack loaded trailers directly on vessels without employing trucks.

The Problems Of the Shipping Industry in the 1950s

Till the 1950s, seaborne cargo transportation was cumbersome and risky. Cargo mainly was manhandled, and different goods like coffee, beer, flour, grain, meat and other perishable items were loaded into different crates and barrels onboard ships and then unloaded.

A lot of space was required for keeping them as they were not appropriately maintained due to the absence of the present-day modern containers that can be stacked on top of each other. Also, cargo could easily fall or break or even go stale, such as food products.

The whole process was relatively slow, not to mention that it was extremely expensive and risky. In 1954, a cargo vessel, Warrior, left Brooklyn. It was destined for Germany and was carrying 194,582 products which reached the port as 1,156 distinct shipments.

Road To Fame- Revolutionising Global Shipping

Keith Tantlinger’s road to fame started in the 1950s when the shipping industry in the United States, following the culmination of the Second World War, required severe transformations.

After observing the problems that the cargo shipping industry faced on account of limited storage and mobility, Mr Malcolm Mclean, the owner of a shipping company named Pan-Atlantic, proposed an idea to Mr Tantlinger in the year 1955. The idea was to create such a method of container holding for marine cargo that would enhance the capacitance of the container itself and prove extremely viable in terms of costs to the shipping companies.

Mr Tantlinger joined Mclean’s company which was renamed the Sea-Land Service. Initially, he faced many problems designing a model for stacking shipping containers.

He Designed A Novel Locking Technology And Uniform Containers That Could Be Secured When Stacked

He designed many steel fittings welded to each corner or edge of the container. Each fitting had a hole in which a twist-lock could be dropped. Then, another container could be stacked on top of the first, a handle then turned, and the two containers could be locked together. This process could be repeated, and a tall stack of containers could finally be built.

Cranes could directly hold onto the corner fittings and lift the containers on and off ships. The twist-lock could secure a container to truck chassis or railroad cars.

Along with developing a locking methodology, Mr Tantlinger’s container re-development included closing off the shipping containers and facilitating their easy hauling to and from container vessels. In addition to the easy loading and unloading from vessels, the modified containers also offered easy hauling from railway cargo carriers and camions.

But the most important utility offered by Keith Tantlinger’s pioneering development was the fact the closed and locked cargo containers could be arranged one-on-top-of-another, making large-scale cargo transportation possible across continents.

Steel cargo containers, measuring 40 feet lengthwise with a height of about eight to nine feet, were utilised and successfully modified by Mr Tantlinger. These steel containers, therefore, can be rightfully regarded as the pre-cursors to the currently prevailing criterion in terms of shipping cargo containers.

It is due to Keith Tantlinger’s development of his stacking and locking mechanisms that a vessel can transport thousands of containers in one journey. Millions of shipping containers are there worldwide, packed with essential items, including electronics such as computers, mobile phones and automobiles. There are refrigerated containers that carry perishable items like meat or seafood.

The fact that global shipping has become so easy, profitable and safe tells us the importance of Tantlinger’s invention.

Initial Criticisms, Acceptance and Success

When Mr Tantlinger came up with his idea of closed containers, the idea was met with a lot of scepticism. Longshoremen’s unions opposed his container and staged several strikes. Critics also said that containerisation led to the decline of manufacturing in America.

Manhatten was once one of the greatest garment centres, which went away due to the invention of the container since it made it cheaper to ship apparel made in Asia and distribute it rather than making it in the Garment District. However, it brought many advantages, like the availability of low-cost goods to the customers.

Only after noting the extent of the distance traversed by the container vessels over a considerable period was the idea met with a favourable response.

hapag-lloyd steep floor container

Credits: hapag-lloyd.comAnother important fact that added to the merit of the modified containers was the feasibility of carrying various commodities that would otherwise have been impossible. With the perennially looming prospect of increased costs at sight, the modified vessel containers became a much-desired requirement rather than the anathema they were regarded before.

Conclusion

For his envisioning and innovative concept, Mr Tantlinger was presented with the Gibbs Brothers Medal in 2009. Instituted by the National Academy of Sciences, laurel is given to those who have contributed substantially to the field of applied sciences.

Mr Tantlinger might have died, but his innovation still commands a pivotal position in the marine shipping industry. For this reason, Mr Tantlinger’s presence will be forever marked in the pages of maritime history.

Frequently Asked Questions?

1. Who was Keith Tantlinger?

He was a mechanical engineer and an inventor who brought about a revolution in continerisation along with the famous Malcolm MClean.

2. What did he do before inventing the container?

During the second world war, he worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company and designed parts for the production of the B-17 bomber. In the 1950s, he became the Vice President of Engineering at Brown Industries and manufactured truck trailers in Spokane, Washington.

3. What was his contribution to shipping?

He developed uniform containers with a locking mechanism that could be transported directly on ships via cranes. His containers could be stacked on each other, making shipping safe, easy and cheap.

4. Did he face any opposition?

When Mr Tantlinger came up with his idea of closed containers, the idea was met with a lot of scepticism. Longshoremen’s unions opposed his container and staged several strikes. Critics also said that containerisation led to the decline of manufacturing in America.

5. Was he awarded for his contributions?

For his envisioning and innovative concept, Mr Tantlinger was presented with the Gibbs Brothers Medal in 2009. Instituted by the National Academy of Sciences, laurel is given to those who have contributed substantially to the field of applied sciences.

You may also like to read – Nathaniel Bowditch: The Founder of Modern Maritime Navigation.

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2 Comments

  1. Not to take away from Mr. Tantlinger’s developmental work, but the guy behind containerisation was Malcolm McLean. He gets most of the credit.

  2. I think you can compare McLean & Tantlinger to Rolls (businessman) & Royce (engineer).

    Each needed the other.

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