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From Wagon to Air: The Dramatic Evolution of Freight Forwarding
May 21st, 2014

From our earliest days, we humans have been nomads, travelling long distances in search of food, clean water, and shelter. Over time, our species spread from the valleys of Africa to every continent, every corner of the globe—and we have even made strides beyond it.

The need for freight has grown with us, originating thousands of years ago; archaeologists have recently discovered evidence of frequent trading activity 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and proof of English and Flemish traders selling wool and other staples to one another prior to the middle ages. Back then, the duty of managing freight fell upon the owner of the goods, but as trade proliferated wildly over the centuries, the need for intermediaries arose. Organising freight became an industry unto itself, which birthed the modern occupation of freight forwarding.

The beginnings of the industry are, however, humble; early international freight forwarders were generally frustrated, harried innkeepers in London who found themselves having to forward on the goods of guests, but having no real time to arrange this service themselves. Ergo, they had people arrange these shipments for them, by contracting with various carriers.

Arguably the first real freight forwarding company was Thomas Meadows and Company Limited (based, of course, in London, England). Rail transport and steamships allowed them to make a regular business out of forwarding freight, and as trade developed between Europe and North America, their business grew exponentially. Thomas Meadows and Company soon became experts on the documentation and the customs requirements inherent in getting goods from one nation to another, and their services in this area became par for the course as far as what freight forwarders were expected to provide. Overseas agents were hired to help in staying abreast of these ever-changing needs, and with the advent of air travel, air freight forwarders emerged as well.

Today a freight forwarding company performs much the same services, receiving goods from the manufacturer or producer and then taking full charge of getting them to market, to the customer, or to another point of distribution. Typically, they have special contracts with carriers in order to streamline this process, whilst the forwarder acts as a sort of overseer, a specialist in supply chain management.

Due to the increasingly fast pace of trade (and society as a whole) and the growing freight needs that arose with the birth of online shopping, today most freight forwarders are air freight forwarders, working on a tight schedule to ensure that you get your deliveries from Amazon et al by the incredibly tight deadlines such retailers promise—something that, of course, can only be achieved by the use of jet planes. Air freight forwarders employ robots and report detailed tracking information, allowing us to experience the excitement of hitting “refresh” every hour as we wait for a particularly desired parcel, seeing if it has landed near home.

However, despite all these changes in the industry and our present love for anything with one-click ordering and next-day shipping, Lloyd’s Loading List is still the freight forwarding industry’s journal of record, as it has been for over 160 years—only today, it provides enough details about forwarders, nvoccs, shipping lines, and enough agents to serve over 10,000 ports around the world.

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