by: Geoff Ficke

How a Simple Box Concept Changed World Trade And Fostered the Rise of a 3rd World Middle Class

For almost 4000 years the methodology used to ship finished goods, raw materials and minerals between distant points on the globe did not change. A transport ship pulled into a seaport. Shipping agents onshore organized transport and assigned cargo and bills of lading to specific crews. Stevedores and longshoremen physically hauled the full barrels and trunks containing trade goods aboard the vessels. With a ships hold completely full, the captain and crew began the long, dangerous trip to their destination port.

This process had not significantly changed since the times of the ancient seafaring Carthaginians and Phoenicians. The advent of the 20th century saw the introduction of mechanical lifts and winches which made the process a bit more efficient. However, shipping docks in ports all over the world were notorious for being ridden with corrupt customs officials and unions that made prompt haulage of goods an uncertain enterprise at best.

This dawdling movement of freight made international commerce extremely expensive and slow. A poor, remote country that possessed a necessary raw material typically could not convert that material to finished, value added goods. The materials had to be shipped to more developed, fully industrialized nations where raw materials could be utilized in the manufacturing of desirable consumer goods and industrial products. Poor nations stayed poor. Rich nations got richer.

Today, in the early years of the 21st century, there is a global explosion in trade between countries on every continent. New shipping ports are being built to accept huge mega-shipping vessels in newly affluent Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Viet Nam and China. Materials, foodstuffs, finished goods and fuels are being transported in massive quantities. The Panama Canal is being widened to allow passage of ever-larger massive freight hauling ships.

None of this could have occurred without the genius of an unsung American inventor. The redesign of a simple rectangular box that he engineered and pioneered changed the international movement of goods and accelerated the development of consumerism and the growth of a middle class in countries around the world.

Keith Tantlinger died recently at the age of 92. Mr. Tantlinger was an industrial engineer and Inventor and was working in the shipping industry in the early 1950’s. He was frustrated with the bottlenecks that were a constant at west coast shipping terminals. He set out to do something about the problem.

Keith Tantlinger designed the first intermodal shipping container. His invention of the corner casting system, Twist-lock system, spreader bar lift and the ship shore transfer apparatus laid the groundwork for the development of the modern universal shipping container. This simple enhancement of a steel shipping box enabled fully loaded containers to be stacked and handled mechanically with almost no manual labor.

The ability to catalog and move goods on such a massive scale enabled Product Marketers to provide consumers everywhere with the benefits of large scale production. For the first time one ship could safely haul a massive assortment of goods, everything from raw materials to Toys, to Sporting Goods, to Hardware Products, to Small Electric Appliances and so much more.

Today container shipments are ubiquitous. An empty container can be found at a factory in Chicago or Lousiville. The container when loaded is placed on a rail car and shipped to a port for an international destination. At final destination the container is unloaded and the re-loaded with a new consignment of Mattresses or Sofas destined for Germany. Upon arrival in Hamburg, the Mattress or Furniture container is loaded onto a trailer and hauled by truck to a retail warehouse.

The intermodal flexibility that Keith Tantlinger pioneered accelerated the growth of international trade. It has made the world a smaller and necessarily more co-operative place. Trade partners typically do not have significant reason to shoot at each other. Millions of formerly poverty stricken third world residents have found economic opportunity and benefitted greatly from global trade.

Keith Tantlinger worked in an area where he saw a problem. In typically 1950’s American style he rolled up his sleeves and committed to finding solutions. The development of the intermodal shipping container, capable of being utilized by rail, ship and truck anywhere on the planet was his contribution to the advance of enterprise and improving the human condition. Mr. Tantlinger will be remembered.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.