Saturday, March 2, 2019

Before containerization…(or, 'a beautiful day we shall see')

Cargo carried by liner shipping has come to be known as general cargo. Up to the beginning of the 1960s, i.e. before containerization, such cargo was transported in various forms of unitization (packaging), such as pallets, slings, boxes, barrels and crates, by relatively small ships, known as general cargo shipscargo freightersmultipurpose shipstwin-deckers or multi-deckers. These were ships with holds (cargo compartments) in a shelf-like arrangement, where goods were stowed in small pre-packaged consignments (parcels) according to destination (see Figure).

This was a very labor-intensive process[1] and ships were known to spend most of their time in port, waiting to berth, load or discharge. Seafaring was fun[2] in those days, but congestion was a chronic problem in most ports, raising the cost of transport and hindering the growth of trade. Equally importantly, such delays in ports made trade movements erratic and unpredictable, obliging manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers to keep large stock. As a result, warehousing and carrying (capital) costs were adding up to the cost of transport, making final goods more expensive and, again, hindering international trade and economic development. Cases have also been known where inefficient ports were welcomed, if not deliberately pursued, by governments, as an effective tariff and barrier to foreign imports. (see: Gigantism in container shipping here). 

HE Haralambides

[1] Labor productivity in those days was roughly 1 ton per man-hour; with containerization, this went up hundredfold. In the first case, a docker would climb up the gangway 10 times an hour, with a sack of rice on his shoulder. In the second, a crane-driver would load 20 containers of rice onboard the containership, comfortably seated and handling a “joystick” from the warm cubicle of a ship-to-shore gantry-crane, or from the terminal office, or even from his home! The first docker would be paid peanuts (if he was lucky) while the second has a salary every worker in the world would envy today.

[2] Listen here the insuperable Maria Callas singing 'un bel di vedremo' (a beautiful day we will see...): The song of Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), waiting to see the smoke in the horizon that would bring the white ship of her beloved B.F. Pinkerton into the port.

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