Vintage Shipping – a look at the way shipping was done in the 80s and 90s

Work from Home (WFH) – the “new normal” of 2020 seems to have gained worldwide acceptance since COVID-19 and has been the subject of many discussions on its merits and de-merits..

When I think about how the shipping and freight industry has adapted and is currently adapting to WFH practices, I can’t help wondering how the industry might have coped with this pandemic, the disruption it caused and if WFH would have been possible had it occurred in the 80s and 90s when things were handled much differently in the industry..

For those of you who were “born” into this current technology driven world of shipping, freight and logistics, below is how vintage shipping was done.. 🙂

Much of below is how I used to do it personally in my years working for a clearing agent, shipping agency and a shipping line in the 80s and 90s and I am sure many of you who have been around in the industry for long may identify with this and may have had similar experiences..

Oxford Dictionary defines Vintage as “Denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind“.. I fully agree and identify with this definition/sentiment..


Marketing & Sales

If we start with marketing and sales, while the marketing and sales process itself has remained pretty constant, what has changed are the methods of communication with customers..

In the absence of emails and websites not being so functional and advanced as it is now, shipping schedules were advertised regularly in the local printed newspapers or specific printed shipping magazines with information relating to ETA and ETD of ships..

Schedules were also “faxed” to customers..

vintage shipping - fax machine

For those who are not aware of what a Fax machine is or have not worked with it, this is what it looks like..

You place your document(s) in the machine pretty much like a copier, key in the “Fax number” of the recipient, hit the Send button and Hey Presto !! the person on the other side receives a “copy” of the document(s) on a “thermal paper” (like the till slips or receipts you get from some of the credit card machines)..

Thermal paper of course had its own problem as the information would disappear after a while, so the fax was photocopied onto normal paper..

As fax and printing evolved, thermal paper disappeared from fax machines and normal A4 paper was used..

If you are wondering “duh!!” I can still send a fax from a copier, those days a fax machine was a fax machine and a photocopier was a photocopier, no multi-function machines like now..

 

Bookings

Most offices had pre-printed blank booking forms.. Clients would phone in for bookings or fax the details of their bookings..

Once the vessel/voyage details and space was confirmed, those details would be either hand-written or typed out on a typewriter and a copy would be faxed to the client or handed over to the sales person to pass on to the client..

There was no online booking systems whether 3rd party or the shipping line’s own.. We used to maintain booking details on a manual ledger notebook with the booking numbers in sequential order..

 

Container Tracking

One of the most laborious tasks that I recall doing was the “container tracking” which unlike now, was totally manual.. No Excel, no EDI, no online tracking system..

Container tracking involved maintaining a “T-Card” for each container.. The T-Card had details of the container number, vessel/voyage and all the moves such as discharge, gate out, gate in, load etc.. This is how T-Cards looked..

vintage shipping - t-cards

 

Each T-Card had a slot on a T-card rack as shown below.. Each of the slot panels (marked in Red) had multiple slots (marked in Green) for the T Cards and had label headings such as Depot 1, Depot 2, Port, De-Van (full container going for import unpack), Van (empty container going for export pack), Vessel/Voyage etc..

Depot 1, Depot 2 etc referred to the various empty container depots that the line had, so the empty containers would go under the respective depot and full or empty containers would go under the port..

Vintage shipping - T card rack

The T-cards for a particular vessel/voyage would stay under the vessel/voyage panel until it completed discharge or loading after which it was moved to the relevant blocks..

Once the containers were loaded on board the ship and the loading vessel details was entered into the T-Cards, the T-Cards for that vessel/voyage would be moved “out” of the rack, banded together and put away for any future reference..

Vintage shipping - container tracking

This activity was so intense and involved that many people doing this (including me) could remember 500+ container numbers and in which position or slot a particular container number was because these cards were being constantly picked up and updated..

 

Stowage Planning and  Vessel Operations

Container stowage planning was no exception and was also done manually.. We used to have pre-printed sheets of the profile of the ship’s bay plan.. A profile was kind of a birds eye view of all the bays on the ship..

I would mark the “profile” of the bay plan with the POD, container size/type etc and send the same by fax to the ship (which would be on high seas or the previous port most likely at that time)..

 

bayplan

When I did a comparison of container ship stowage planning between a ship from 1996 and another from 2013, it made me realise how much things have changed..

Vintage shipping - pagerIn terms of handling of vessel operations, telephonic communications were mostly through public telephones..

If the office or a client or anyone wanted to get in touch with me, while at the port or elsewhere, they would send a message on a “paging device” called Pager (image here)..

You would see most operational guys walking around port with this thing clipped on to their belts..

The pager shows the number of the person calling and a brief message such as Please call back or Go to the Port Office or Customs or some information message like that..

I would then go to a public telephone (no cell phones) and call the person who sent the message.. Mission accomplished.. 🙂

 

bill of lading preparationDocumentation

Bills of Lading used to be prepared by the customers and not by the shipping lines as it is done now..

During my life in a clearing agent’s office I used to go to the shipping line’s offices, collect blank bill of lading forms, take it back to the office and type out the information on a bill of lading non-negotiable stationery using a typewriter..

Once completed, I would fax the draft copy to the shipper for them to confirm.. Once they confirmed the draft bill, I would then start the process of preparing the actual bills of lading..

Bills of lading were usually issued in sets of 3 originals and 6 or 9 copies.. Therefore to save time typing each page and to maintain consistency, I used to arrange the bills of lading with the blank original bill of lading in front, followed by a sheet of typing carbon, followed by a non-negotiable copy, followed by a sheet of typing carbon, followed by another non-negotiable copy and so on..

Typically a set for typing would be 1 original + 3 copies so 4 sheets of paper with typing carbon between each (best fit in a smaller typewriter)..

Roll the whole set into the typewriter and type the bill of lading details as submitted by the customer.. The Original bill had the original type imprint and the non-negotiable copies had the copy type imprint from the carbon paper..

Repeat this times 2 per bill of lading so finally I would have 3 originals with original type imprint and 9 non-negotiable copies all with carbon type imprint..

vintage shipping - bill of lading typing

Once the bills were prepared as above, I would take the whole set back to the shipping lines office alongwith the cheque for the freight and other charges..

At the shipping line’s office there was a release counter with an area where the agents could “stamp” the bill of lading with Original, Non-Negotiable, Shipped on Board, Shipper’s Load Stow and Count and other clauses etc..

Then I would wait around for the bill to be checked and signed by the signatory and the shipping line would take a copy and give the rest others back..

On the shipping line side also the typewriter was extensively used and mainly for typing up the cargo and freight manifest.. We had these humongous 132 column typewriters (like below) where we would use pre-printed blank manifest forms usually in sets of 6 typed using carbon sheets between the pre-printed sheets and type the manifest information.. vintage shipping - manifest typing on typewriter

Once done, we would keep our copies with us and send the others by post/courier to the discharge ports and principals offices in order for it to arrive before the vessel arrived..

In the case of short transit ports, since the sheets could not fit into a fax machine, we used the photocopier to “reduce” the manifest copy size to A4 so we could fax those to some of the ports that were short transit and where the post would not have reached the discharge port in time..

I don’t know if many people know about or use the “enlarge” and “reduce” options in a photocopier that can reduce your copy size from A3 to A4 or A5 or enlarge it from A5 or A4 to A3..

vintage shipping - perforated sheetsAt a later stage of the evolution of business, the responsibility of bill of lading preparation and printing was taken over the shipping lines..

At that time the shipping lines used “perforated” bill of lading stationery which had self-ink between the sheets and the stationery was not in loose A4 sheets as it is now in most countries..

These perforated bills of lading were printed using a “Dot Matrix Printer“..

By this stage of the evolution, we had “computers” which were in fact “dumb terminals”..

This means the users didn’t have a “desktop or laptop” of their own, all we had was a terminal connected to a main frame based elsewhere..

These terminals had no storage, no memory, no disk capacity etc etc.. We could only do “our work” and nothing else..

 

Vessel arrival and sailing reports

Telex MachineThe vessel arrival and sailing reports were done using a combination of typewriters, fax machines and telex machine..

If you look at the machine on the left, that is a Telex Machine.. The name TELEX is the acronym for TELegraph EXchange service..

A Telex Machine is a teleprinter which can send and receive text based messages using the telegraph service..

A message sent using the Telex machine is known as a Telex message..

A telex machine could be used for real time one-on-one communication with someone on the other side of the world, or could be used to send a previously drafted message..

Telex was one of the most popular methods for communicating with ships while at sea and maybe considered as the precursor to email communication..

We used telex machines for the transmission of regular messages to the ships, preparing and sending reports before, during and after a ship’s operation (Example : Arrival reports, Container Load Lists, Cargo operations progress reports, and TDRs (Terminal Departure Reports))..

If you see on the left of the telex machine there is a white tape.. We used this tape to “store” all the information on long messages such as the TDR which would list the container numbers of all containers loaded on a ship..

seeing stars

We would prepare the message off line and the tape would “record” it using holes punched in various orders..

The messages were prepared off line because telex messaging was transmitted in real time which meant there would be connection charges (like your “data” charges now)..

Since a vessel’s sailing report could take more than 1-2 hours to prepare (depending on the number of containers used), it would be a waste of money to keep the telex connection live..

Typing on a telex machine was not nearly as easy as typing on a modern keyboard as the keys were mechanical and were quite hard and slow..

Once the message was prepared, the telex machine would be connected to the recipients line(s) and the same message was transmitted to the various discharge ports and the principal at the same time.. We could also ask for receipt confirmation at the end of the message and that receipt was stored in the vessel file as proof of transmission..

Phew..

 

Point of concern

While the current opportunities driven by technology is great and has saved everyone a lot of time from doing the work like above, it also has its own pitfalls and dangers..

vintage shipping

As the industry embraces digitalisation more and more, it has also become vulnerable to actions like cyber attacks..

The magnitude of the impact of a cyber attack was probably realised clearly for the first time on the 27th of June 2017 when the world’s largest container shipping line Maersk Line, was hit by the global Petya cyber attack..

This attack on Maersk Line was followed by attacks on MSC, Cosco and most recently CMA CGM, all of which happened in the last 3 years with varying levels of intensity and disruption to the lines and its customers..

Such unexpected and unprecedented attacks led to a huge disruption in the operations the carriers and these delays affect customers and trade in many ways..

This also brings to the fore, the level of security which the staff working from home must cope with and steps that companies must adopt to ensure that their systems are not breached through this WFH..

We are all on learning curve for the lessons that COVID-19 is dishing out to us and very soon WFH may be the norm as the companies are also seeing the benefits of WFH and the cost reduction etc that it brings with it..

There are of course limitations for WFH, but in our industry there is certainly a lot of scope for the work to be done remotely..


*** Article reposted with a few critical updates

*** End of Article ***

20 thoughts on “Vintage Shipping – a look at the way shipping was done in the 80s and 90s”

  1. Wow! A trip down memory lane. I started in shipping in 1996 at a ship’s agency in Barbados – and we were STILL using all of these things! I would have to send telexes and I remember looking at the stow plan. I was interested in EVERYTHING back then! They were still using typewriters (electronic ones now though) up to a few years ago. The fax machines for sending out notifications of incoming cargo – the dot matrix printer, the pagers.

    Thank you for initiating those memories!

    Reply
  2. Hi Hariesh, love this article! Thanks for taking the time to document it – brings back so many great memories! Many similarities also for Airfreight operations during the same period! I remember being focussed on not making any mistakes while using the type-writer to create a Mawb through fear of having to make adjustments 🙂 I remember these days where airlines gave you physical carbon copies of their Mawb to use. While manual, all of these things really helped my grounding to understand the industry. #Greatmemories

    Reply
  3. Have operated all of those equipments and tools on the beginning of my career.

    This text have brought me good memories, about how to work on shipping without too many technologies.

    It was not an easy period, but it was a very good one.

    Who lived same years, probably has many good and funny stories to remind.

    Reply
  4. Hi, I started in the Customs Brokerage industry in December 1965 before the first Container ships came “Downunder” – when only conventional cargo ships were used & when cargo was unloaded out of the Holds using Nets and even before electronic calculators were used – those days were even more different (and seemingly more fun) than what you have described – and in those days there was a large amount of damage and pillaging of cargoes and we had to physically lodge, by hand, all of the documents at the Customs House and the Shipping companies ! 🙂 You don’t know what you missed 🙂

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this article. It brings back a lot of memories, since I’ve been in the industry since 1985. I will share this with my current co-workers who are mostly in their 20’s & 30’s, and I’m sure will be amazed by how things had to be done in the past.

    Reply
  6. Hi Hariesh,
    I have been reading your blog ever since i started my new carrier as a logistics coordinator with on of the trading company in Qatar. Your blog is absolutely worth reading for everyone in the industry specially to the newcomers in this industry like me. Keep up the good work.

    Question to you…We had chemical imports from the Belgium with shipping terms CIP, when the container arrived to our warehouse we found that 4 drums was damaged. We claimed with the supplier but the supplier couldn’t find out the root cause of damages on their investigation and send us the report that this should settle as unknown . Please advise what action we can take further.

    Looking blog readers comments here…

    Reply
  7. While surface mail and cable communication has been replaced by the above devices, the telephone hasn’t (yet) been replaced by another device though seems heavily challenged by Skype and similar digital platforms offering a face-to-face oral communication.
    As the global tele communication infrastructure is changing from copper-wire to fiberoptic cables offering more bandwidth, ultimately the fixed line telephone may be replaced by such live-video sessions.
    As new generations of mobile networks are developed, even handheld devices may be able to handle such live-video sessions satisfactorily.

    Reply
  8. I remember a computer in our container terminal’s tower and I fed it with the paper punched cards. Ekh! Time flies as a eyewink. Thank you for posting these memories.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share