To pass the time while ironing, I often browse YouTube to find suitable videos. The question is not whether I also iron underpants (no, I don’t), but which videos are entertaining or engaging enough to distract me from monotonous shirt ironing. Because I had presumably previously watched a documentary on Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland, YouTube suggested a half-hour color film documentary by a certain Kurt Lehfeldt, who had designed a snapshot of Hamburg’s harbor in 1938. Lehfeldt had actually been a master confectioner in Hamburg and at the same time an avid amateur filmmaker, who today gives us a nostalgic trip to Hamburg of that time with his oldest surviving color film.
For me as a Viennese landlubber, ports are something mysterious and adventurous at the same time. The multitude of names for the ships alone seems confusing to me. The faces of the seamen and dockworkers reflect both the gravity of the profession and the pride in the work. My understanding of the sea is shaped by German actor Hans Albers and the Pirates of the Caribbean. You can see the stereotypes that I had internalized. In that respect, the documentary offered a welcome different perspective on a port, and not just any port at any time. It was the port of the Hanseatic city of Hamburg in its bustle at the time, a few years before its destruction in World War II.
I could still follow the first few minutes with views of passenger ship traffic without any problems, but from the seventh minute on I had to put my iron away, listen more closely and Google for the terms. The sentence “20,000 people were employed as stevedores, winchmen, wharf and store workers, crane operators and ewer operators around 1938” had left me uncomprehending. What are stevedores? What are winchmen? And please, what does a ewer operator do?
I hope I can be forgiven for not being able to relate to these job titles coming from a landlocked country. But even if you were born and raised on the North Sea and Baltic Sea, some of the terms have fallen out of fashion. Several of these professions had to do with loading and unloading ships, and they endured for centuries. It is important to know that until the 1960s, goods were loaded onto ships in boxes, barrels and bales, or in bulk. This was done partly by the machinists and winchmen who moved the cargo with cranes and loading harnesses, and then by stevedores who stuffed every nook and cranny in the hold of the ship, stowage depending on the weight of the cargo, the type of cargo, or the order in which the cargo was expected to be discharged at the respective next ports of call. Tallymen, in turn, kept a list of the goods and checked them for completeness and possible damage.
As can be easily seen, this was heavy and dangerous physical work and incorrect loading could result in damage to the goods, longer unloading time and therefore extra costs, or list and in extreme cases even sinking of the ship in high waves. The work could be quite irregular. Some days there were few ships in, others a great many. The number of dock workers needed varied greatly, and not surprisingly, they formed unions to enforce wages or weight limits that goods were allowed to have. This happened at ports all over the world. Dock workers negotiated with shipping companies the use of so-called gangs, a group of cargo workers with a precise number of team members, and their pay. The pay was based on the commodity. A ton of coffee beans in bags had a different rate than spare parts for cars, whiskey barrels or pallets of packaging.
It is easy to calculate that loading and unloading a ship could take several days. An American study from 1954 demonstrated this. Using the ‘Warrior’, a so-called C-2 freighter of the Waterman Steamship Corporation, with a length of 140 meters, a width of 19.20 meters and a side height of 12.20 meters, the government measured the loading time in one of these very average and common cargo ships. The five cargo holds offered around 5,000 tons of loading capacity. The study listed the cargo of the ship sailing from Brooklyn to Bremerhaven and chartered by the U.S. military, which offers a glimpse of how laborious and inefficient the logistics process was.
|Goods||Quantity||Percentage of total weight [%]|
Maritime Cargo Transportation Conference,
The SS Warrior, Seite 8
These 5,015 tons of cargo arrived at the Brooklyn docks in 1,151 separate shipments from 151 American cities, with the first shipment arriving a month before the Warrior sailed. Each commodity was packed onto pallets in the warehouses, and then later loaded into the ship’s cargo holds. In the process, $5,031.69 in lumber and rope was used to anchor and tie down the goods in the cargo hold. Working an eight-hour shift each day, it took workers six days (including one strike day) to place the cargo in the ship. The crossing then took 10.5 days and unloading the cargo in Bremerhaven, where dock workers worked through, took four days. The ship spent half the time at the jetty, where it was loaded and unloaded. The last piece of cargo reached its destination 33 days after the Warrior docked in Bremerhaven. Thus, parts of the cargo had been underway for up to 95 days.
How can we predict the future and better prepare for it? This is a question that many companies are asking themselves, and one that also has consequences for their personal futures.
Of the total cost of $237,577 that transportation accounted for at the time, just 11.5 percent was for the crossing itself. Loading and unloading at the two ports accounted for a full 36.8 percent of the costs. The shipping companies often had to reckon with a share of 50 percent or more of the transport costs just for loading and unloading the cargo. In this specific case, they fell short of that because the level of wages paid to German dock workers at the time was only one-fifth that of their Brooklyn counterparts.
However, this labor-intensive and inefficient method of loading not only cost time. There was a lot of breakage and theft was commonplace. Especially when dockers felt betrayed by the shipping companies, they ‘supplemented’ their wages by diverting cargo. Thus, every dock worker was proud of his techniques how whiskey could be diverted unnoticed. In some cases, entire fences of stolen goods established themselves around the docks. This increased insurance costs. The reputation of dockworkers as rough guys who liked to have a drink and were often involved in scuffles also did not contribute to their popularity with shipping companies and the general public. A full fifth of American and British dockworkers had criminal records, many could not read, write or do arithmetic even in the 1960s, and half of factory workers in the U.S. had only a middle school diploma. At the same time, however, the wage of a dockworker was up to 50 percent higher than that of workers with a similar level of education.
Little wonder that the shipping companies were looking for alternatives. And the solution to this was to entail changes that no one could have imagined. And it all had to do with metal boxes, which we know today under the collective term container or shipping container.
 Ben B. Seligman; Most Notorious Victory: Man in an Age of Automation; New York, 1966