Coffee Cups, a Cauldron and Containers

Gavin Turk told  a newspaper [sadly, behind a pay wall] about a day in his life. He was one of the original Young British Artists and is a busy man employing several people. We learned about some of his past work. There were the 1000, signed sheets of paper each just marked with a ring from a cup of tea. Then there were the bronze casts of bite-marked, polystyrene cups painted to look real. He also took a single bite out of lots of Rich Tea biscuits (because, he said, of his interest in ideas about identity and how he could manipulate his image and name) signed each one and then sold them for £25 each.

The Lad looked up at the very moment after reading this piece. A shipping container on a lorry passed by the window.

Arbitrary Container
Engineers designed Containers like this one.

The conception, design and value of the container were different to Turk’s works. The concept and design of the container has transformed international commerce. That transformation, without exaggeration, is equal to the change from the stagecoach to the High Speed Train. That has changed the World. If you want to discover more about how it happened there is a very readable book. It is called “The Box. How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger”. It is a marvellous story of how Containers did for shipping what computing did for engineering. Astonishingly there are no illustrations at all and only one simple graphic in the book and that is a line diagram on the title page.

One of the pleasures of the engineer’s tasks is the justified satisfaction in plucking out of her mind a design to do something and turning into a new object. True, the engineer is kin to the artist in that most artists also have a similar satisfaction in a task well done; that is of making something in their case mostly to give pleasure to the onlooker or to achieve a particular effect in their mind. It must be emphasised that there are occasions though when high artistry is vital. Even when it is not vital, it can still, combined with the right product or structure, add immeasurably to its quality. Few engineers can provide both qualities.

For the later, take the Olympic cauldron for London 2012 Games designed by Thomas Heatherwick. The concept needed an artistic intelligence of the highest order. It got it. Superb: there is no other word for it. First the artistic vision of many, separate petals: one for each of the countries taking part. Then the vision brought them together to become one cauldron. The engineering design then kicked in. It had to design the burners to produce the right flame picture; the fitting of the petals and the gas supply: the mechanism to raise them elegantly in synchrony into the air; to stand rigidly together in the stadium environment. A magnificent, dramatic blend of art and design.

Then there was the container that passed The Lad. Such ubiquity in modern life! Yet there is good engineering in this. You may argue that there is no artistry in the design of the shipping container. Even if you argue that fitness for purpose or form following function cannot be classed as such there is certainly intense creativity in its design. Then there are engineering drawings which have no artistic flourishes and are stripped down to the barest essentials to define any component or assembly of components. Nonetheless as an engineer The Lad finds in it, not surprisingly perhaps, a spare beauty. This is the General Assembly of a Shipping Container.

Standard Container example
An engineering assignment. "Design a Container"


One website sketched it as

  • 20′ ISO shipping container, new
  • All listed shipping container types have a double door on one end which can be opened completely.
  • Walls made of corrugated steel sheets, profiled steel frames, wooden floor on steel cross members
  • certified by Germanischer Lloyd
  • steel plates made of Corten steel (anti corrosive)
  • forged and galvanised door locking bars

There is a Technical Specification here

The heart of the design, however in the view of The Lad, lies with the corner fittings. They are not complex: they could even be called magnificently simple. They are the components that allow each container to be picked up and also to be firmly attached to the transporter or another container above or below itself. This is a drawing of one .

The heart and core of the Container's design

Not all clever pieces of engineering are complicated. Some are quite simple. You will see that there are a number of holes or piercings in the corner fitting which are not circular. Each corner fitting is multiply connected as the mathematicians would put it. That combined with their need for some reliable strength makes their manufacture worth considerable thought. How would you make them? Machine them from solid? Or forge them? Stamp them? Weld them?

There is a good video talking of corner fitting features here by Tandemloc.

There is a hair-raising video showing the problems that the engineer seeks to design against here. Such a problem though is one of the invariants in any engineering design. Engineers load up a piece of the real world and any failures will have real consequences. Some of those consequences will be serious. Uncontrolled release of forces in the real world can have explosive effects; leading them to exert large effects somewhere undesirable – usually nearby. Such a risk is the shadow under which the professional engineer labours: it is for what she or he is paid. Every person in the world every hour of the day has to trust that they are successful.

Note that container corner fittings are actually cast and the cast components are then welded into the Container structure. Consider why this is so.

By the way, apparently, the Gavin Turk, Rich Tea biscuits are now priced at £108 on the Turk website. He does have insight about this though by saying that people would wonder why they should pay. The Turk response though clears that up because that’s what “I liked about it.” No doubt.

Does Gavin Turk find fulfilment in his daily work? Is he delighted (or at least, at the end of the day, reasonably satisfied) with having achieved something? More likely, he is punching the air at having discovered how gullible some people are. He must be having a larff (all the way to the bank).


Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


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