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ANSI Mourns the Loss of Keith W. Tantlinger, Father of Modern Containerization


New York, Sep 16, 2011

He built a better box and changed the world.

Keith W. Tantlinger, the father of modern containerization, passed away on August 27 at the age of 92, but his legacy as the inventor of the technology that sparked globalization endures.

Mr. Tantlinger invented the first commercially viable shipping container nearly six decades ago, transforming the way nations do business and paving the path to the global economy we know today.

From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the computers, cars, and appliances we rely on every day, consumer goods can travel long distances across international borders at relatively little cost thanks to the stacking and locking innovation he devised. His simple but game-changing modification to shipping containers – a corner lock – allowed them to be linked together, stacked high, and carried more easily and cheaply.

A mechanical engineer and Fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Mr. Tantlinger was one of the original members of the American Standards Association (ASA, an earlier incarnation of the American National Standards Institute)/MH-5 Committee for standardization of freight containers, and in addition to the corner casting design, was responsible for many other features in containers. Over the course of his career, he was granted 79 U.S. patents – all related to transportation equipment.

Mr. Tantlinger’s corner casting and twist-lock design allowed containers be on-loaded and off-loaded from ships quickly and fitted onto trucks and trains without having to open and change containers. Recognizing the importance of corner fittings to global containerization, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) approved a version of the Tantlinger design in June 1967.

“The basic concepts that made containerization possible and which are embodied in today’s standards came from Keith,” said Mike Bohlman, current chair of ISO Technical Committee (TC) 104, Freight containers– which helped the container industry to take off in the 1960s. “The design that is in the ISO standards is different than the one Keith originally developed, but the ISO standardized design could not have been developed if Keith’s patented design had not been released.”

Mr. Tantlinger was born in Orange, California, on March 22, 1919. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II he worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company, a precursor of McDonnell Douglas, where he designed tools used to produce the B-17 bomber. Other Tantlinger inventions helped define the basic structure and features of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cars in San Francisco and the rapid transit cars for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA).

In 2009 he was awarded the Gibbs Brothers Medal by the National Academy of Sciences for “his visionary and inventive design of the cellular containership and the supporting systems which transformed the world shipping fleet and facilitated the rapid expansion of global trade.”

Read the New York Times obituary

ANSI Nanotechnology Standards Panel