The Engineer Who Transformed Shipping

By Johna Till Johnson

I have a weird habit, one that I share with many other (equally weird) folks: I love to read obituaries.

“Isn’t that morbid?” you’re thinking. On the contrary: Obituaries usually make me happy.  A good obituary is a celebration of the life and times of a person I’ve probably never heard of, but end up wishing I’d met.

And though I’m sorry to have missed that person, it’s enlightening to know they once existed. It reconfirms my bedrock belief that the world is a far stranger and more interesting place than I’ll ever fully know.

I also happen to be deeply intrigued by shipping containers. One of the great joys of paddling is the up-close-and-personal look you get at shipping containers. Stacked on barges. Loading and unloading from docks. And occasionally, strewn randomly across the landscape.

I marvel at their ingenuity of form, at the fact that they can be stacked so high without (apparently) ever falling over, and lifted and transported securely. I occasionally wonder what it’s like to live in one, given that they’re about as large as the typical Manhattan studio. (Don’t laugh. It’s apparently a growing trend—and it’s eco-friendly to boot.) And of course, I think about the individual who first invented them.

As you’ve probably guessed, the engineer who created the modern shipping container died recently. If you’re too busy to click on the link, here’s the short version: His name was Keith Tantlinger. He died at 92. He lived mostly on the West Coast (California and Washington State) where he worked on tools to build the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber during WWII.  And his crucial engineering insight that created the modern shipping container was the Twistlock “locking corner”, a simple and effective mechanism that made it possible to safely stack shipping containers many layers high.

And the smiling photo that accompanies his obituary (taken in 1958, right around the time when he was working on shipping containers) shows a young man enjoying the rush of creativity, and confidently aware that he’s changing the world.

A world that continues to be stranger and more interesting than we’ll ever fully know… which makes me very happy indeed.

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