The Science Museum has a model of a dockside container crane. It even works – moving back and forth, up and down. It’s fantastically detailed. I had to research it today and it’s a wonderful story.
The crane is a builder’s model and was (probably) sent over from California when a British firm took out a licence to build one over here in the late 1950’s. It then, somehow, wound up in the possession of a man who eventually wanted to sell it.
The man advertised in Exchange & Mart, where someone from the museum spotted it and made enquiries. He inspected the model and put forward a case for purchase. His superior put a figure of £600 on it and the guy was happy to sell it to the museum for that amount.
On closer inspection, it was discovered that the crane needed some repairs and cleaning up so they revised their price to £500 to take into account £100 to fix it up for exhibition. Oddly, the guy was happy with this and the transaction went through. The museum then put out tenders for the repair work.
A note on the file from the director of the museum stated that the crane would make a lovely addition to the collection but he wanted it put on record that, had he been asked, he’d not have agreed to such a high cost. But he was too late to stop the sale and his objection just remains a note on a memo in a file.
The museum then sent the crane to Prototypes model repairs in Northampton with the extra request that they also build a small container carrier to sit alongside the model, which they did. The ensemble came back all shiny and new, helped in no small part with a set of drawings from the company who built the original (full size) crane.
In my investigations, I discovered the history of container transportation.
While there had been a number of attempts to introduce a standard form of container transportation dating from as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1956 that the idea of the containers we see today, going from truck to ship, across the oceans then back to another truck at the destination, started to become a reality.
An American company, Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, did it first. Using containers, they managed to reduce the off-loading time from around three weeks to a mere 18 hours. Others quickly followed. The only problem was the cranes to load and unload the containers.
In order to move the containers, a standard crane was used with varying levels of efficiency. At best, this system would offload a ship at five minutes per container. While this sounds pretty good, taken over a year and the number of containers, the shipping people knew they could do better. So, a tender was put out to find a more permanent answer. The tender was won by a ship building company called Pacific Coast Engineering Company (now called PACECO).
PACECO created the cranes we are used to seeing on wharves, stretching out across the ship, lifting the containers and dropping them onto waiting trucks for distribution. With the new, fixed cranes, the turnaround was reduced by 50% (around two minutes per container).
Everyone was delighted and the new cranes started to be built around the world, under licence to PACECO. In fact, they were so successful that PACECO stopped building anything BUT the cranes. That’s all they do now, the ship building part of their business having sunk without trace just like one of those containers full of runners we hear about, swept over the side mid-Atlantic.
While most people wouldn’t think twice about shipping containers, it made a very exciting afternoon of research.