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In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.
But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential.
Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.
Published in hardcover on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. Now with a new chapter, The Box tells the dramatic story of how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur turned containerization from an impractical idea into a phenomenon that transformed economic geography, slashed transportation costs, and made the boom in global trade possible.
531 pages, Kindle Edition
First published April 9, 2006
”Any change in technology leads almost inevitably to an improvement in the welfare of some and to a deterioration in that of others.” --Joel Mokyt
This is a great book! I started reading this book because I realized how much shipping has changed the things that one has access to, it was also part of the book recommendations on one of the Ezra Klein Show podcast episodes. I don't remember who recommended this book anymore or in what context, though! I am glad I read it nonetheless.
First, a brief word about the good stuff. This is a comprehensive and very very detailed account of how containers started, who started using them, how they came to be standardized and why they make sense beyond a given scale. It refers to a lot of incidents that proved to be rather important for the adoption of containers: the aftermath of the second World War, the Vietnam war, dockworkers unions across the world, shipping companies, freight forwarders, railroad operators, trucking companies. It's hard to think of anyone from the factory right up to the end consumer that this book doesn't touch or talk about.
Perhaps the most stunning thing throughout the book is the consistent resistance that container shipping had from every single person involved in the old process: unions didn't like container shipping, ports didn't like containers, governments weren't really convinced and were far too slow to adopt or create the specifications for standardized containers. Undoubtedly, a significant percentage of the time, most of the resistance ends in a placid acceptance and a sudden interest in getting deeply involved in the process of container shipping (in the form of huge government investment in modernising ports, subsidising the building of containes and container ships, negotiating contracts with shipping carriers that promise them space and cargo at ports)
There is one caveat though: The book is long, and it's not very coherent, the author chose to tell the story of how containers took over global shipping not as a timeline starting from non-container shipping (break-bulk) to container shipping, and rather, as a story of incidents which overlap in time, but are mostly independent in place and time of occurence. That makes the book confusing to read because there are several references to what happened in 1967 and it gets harder and harder to understand in the first half of the book until it all comes together in the second half of the book. That is my only gripe with the book.
Nevertheless, it's an incredibly informative book about a fairly simple concept's hard journey from being an idea to the finished product that now powers all global commercial shipping.