If you have been stopped at a railroad track while the train goes by, you've seen car after car topped with 40-foot long containers. You've seen the names Maersk, Evergreen, China Shipping, Yangming, and Cosco, among others. You've seen them on the interstates, too, on semi trailers delivering goods to towns and cities. Nearly every one of those containers originated at a port in a faraway harbor. The container spotted in Indianapolis, Indiana, might have been in Felixstowe, England, three weeks previously. It reached Indiana with a minimum of expense but with a huge impact on the local economy.
Goods have been transported by ship for centuries. Food, fabric, fuel, and precious items like gold and tobacco, contributed to the growth of commerce and treaties between trade partners. Colonialization and the slave trade were the darker side of shipping. Pirates lay waiting for the unsuspecting or unprotected, a danger which remains to this day. Large coastal cities with natural harbors like London and New York City developed dock-side economies, where laborers were always needed to load and unload ships. As long as this was the case, most goods around the world were made and sold locally, because it was too expensive to import or export. This worked to the advantage of fertile, developed nations; they were able to grow sufficient food and to manufacture goods with local raw materials.
In 1956, 58 metal truck bodies were loaded onto an old tanker ship in Newark, New Jersey. The ship took them to Houston, Texas, where they were loaded onto 58 trucks and then delivered to their destinations. This was the very first instance of ship transport which would completely change the world economy. Decades later, steel intermodal containers are loaded by the thousands onto huge container ships at specialized ports with giant computer-operated cranes. Each 40-foot long container can hold, for instance, thousands of shirts or shoes. Many of the old harbors with dockworkers no longer exist. Longshoresmen once enjoyed their weeks-long shore leave, and considered the job a great way to see the world. These days the crew on a modern container ship are in and out of port in a matter of hours. The volume and speed of container shipping is so great, even security and customs agents have great difficulty in keeping up with the pace. There's even a whole maritime law field specialized in managing the issues that arise with this huge industry.
Harbors and ports require maintenance, such as dredging, to keep the water level deep enough for the size of the ships that use it. Massive container ships require specially-equipped ports with cranes and the infrastructure for storing and distributing the containers. The expense of maintaining harbors is usually borne by their respective governments, at least in part. Many countries around the world have put laws in place to deal with the pollution and waste generated by container ships. In response, companies such as Maersk are now switching to "green" container ships, which are less polluting, but are also much larger than their previous ships. Harbors and ports in turn need to upgrade their facilities to be able to take in these new giant ships. Busy ports stimulate the local economy, but the maintenance and upgrading are expensive for the government.
Container ships are involved in 80% or more of world trade. They are so efficient that transporting goods halfway around the world is now less expensive than it was to transport them across the country fifty years ago. The shipping costs are so low that factories have discovered that it is cheaper to make goods in a faraway country where the workers earn less, then ship the goods back home. The result is fewer jobs at home. The impact on the American economy has been devastating, as workers earn less, there are fewer jobs available, and now there is less money to buy the cheaper imported goods. Developing nations, however, are experiencing an economic boom, resulting in a higher quality of life.