Bills of Lading - A brief history.
For hundreds of years merchants and traders have relied upon the expertise of others to transport their wares from one place to another. It can be argued the wealth of entire countries has always depended upon the efficiency with which imported and exported goods have found new owners.
It can also be argued that the methods we use to document the legal transfer of goods has been just as important to global economies as the evolving ways in which we physically move the goods.
Long before there was phone service connecting people on opposite sides of the world, there were ships and crews conveying everything from people seeking a better life in a new land to precious cargos being sent home from the new world.
Whether the product was valuable tea emerging from Chinese harbors or tobacco making its way from the American east coast to Europe, the cost of production was great and a proper accounting for every pound shipped was important.
The captains of these cargo ships were charged with the duty of conveying certain quantities of certain quality to consignees who would take title to the goods once the freight was delivered in apparent good order.
Shippers and carriers eventually developed an informal method of tracking cargo through a written register that would document such details pertaining a load. Eventually strict protocols were developed to protect the integrity of such registers maintained by the carriers. One provision stated that the register was deemed totally unreliable if found in the possession of anyone other than the ship’s clerk. Other measures provided for the severing of one’s hand if caught falsifying information in the ships register. Some of these policies eventually made their way into statute law and trade flourished in countries where established laws were enforced by government.
Once this documentation became more formalized resembling the now familiar “bill of lading” we are accustomed to working with, people began to use these paper records as freely transferrable instruments which could be used as collateral or security.
The bill of lading increasingly became a document also relied upon by the carriers to establish their claim of payment for services rendered. A bill of lading is generally looked upon by shippers and consignees as documented proof of receipt, however today’s trucking company utilizes the document almost exclusively as is proof that work has been completed and payment warranted.
The next phase of the bill of lading’s evolution will be the convergence new technologies affecting transportation and instant electronic document transmittal.