On the surface, they don’t seem like much: four dirty, sometimes rusted metal walls and a simple locking mechanism. They are everywhere – in harbors, on the highway, on train cars, on construction sites – so much so that they are almost invisble.
But their ubqiuity also underscores their importance and versatility. By standardizing dimensions and making the same container transportable via multiple methods, the humble shipping container makes it possible to pack a unit in Chapel Hill and know – with certainty – that that unit can be delivered in Bangalore, or Murmansk, or Antarctica (whether it arrives or not is another story). This is incredible because it flies in the face of thousands of years of societal development, whereby incompatible systems flouted globalization, trade, and advancement at every stage. As recently as the 19th century, Russia and Europe still boasted different gauges of railroad track (not to mention the Northern and Southern States in the United States!), preventing the easy flow of goods and creating very distinct cultural mindsets (while the Civil War is better known in the West, Russia’s Westernizers vs. Russophile debate has arguably had more impact on the 20th century. That it is neither dead nor buried can be seen in the policies of Messrs. Putin and Medvedev today).
More than that, the shipping crate is hardy and internally customizable, making it possible to ship refrigerated foodstuffs on the same vessel as heavy machinery or cloth goods. As a result, trade routes are simplified, with larger ships taking generic boxes filled with unique content to one port and smaller boats and trucks ferrying it on. Further, the shipping crate makes it possible to deliver packages of survival items to remote locations with greatly reduced effort. It allows humans to exist and thrive in inhospitable and improbable climates such as the deep sea, where cargo ships can hoist food, supplies, and housing onto barren, windswept platforms, or Antarctica, where tons and tons of supplies are delivered every year to allow habitation and research where it could never exist otherwise.
If we developed a space elevator tomorrow, or if we adopt railguns or use SpaceX on steroids or any form of mass cargo delivery system offworld, the shipping crate is where we would start in terms of packaging and consolidating cargo needing to head off world. It’s more than just logistics: this is modular thinking’s mascot. In theory, with five shipping crates and a solar cell, a human can live quite comfortably on Mars – or any other non-melting, non-crushingly pressurized body in the solar system. It is both the brick and mortar of human colonization, and it will be there when we move off-world.