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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger - Second Edition with a new chapter by the author

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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

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Marc Levinson

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 533 reviews
Profile Image for MISS Petra to you!  Say yes ma'am.
2,383 reviews33.9k followers
July 15, 2017
Containerisation is globalisation. Nine ways in which shipping has changed the world.

1. All ships, trains, trailers and cranes for freight are built to the exact same standards. On a ship the tolerance on the rails that lock the containers in place is 1/4". It doesn't matter if it is a refrigerated container, a double-doors one or any of the 16 types of container, all are built to the same external and weight bearing parameters. It doesn't matter if it is in Egypt, Sydney or Cape Town, all the ports are built the same way. All cargo is tracked in the same way on computers.

2. The heavily-protective and Marxist trade unions that fought so hard for their workers in places such as New York and London and Liverpool in the UK lost out to ports built specifically for containers that had no prior agreements with dockers (longshoremen). Rotterdam in Holland and Tilbury in England got the business.

3. The merchant navy employed many men on cargo ships. 1,000 yard container ships carry a crew of between 6 and 20 from cheap, non-unionised countries such as the Philippines.

4. Smuggling of illegal items and people became much easier. Searching the boxes and barrels of a cargo ship is one thing. Searching through thousands of containers locked at point of loading and not unlocked until they reach their final destination is quite another.

5. What was once a week long sojourn in port as cargo was unloaded, trucked away and new trucks and trains arrived with more cargo for loading is accomplished in 24 hours. As soon as one set of cranes has cleared an area, another crane is placing on new containers. No more people seeing the world working on cargo boats.

6. Because of economies of scale, the reduction in labour costs and the greater efficiency of shipping, freight costs have gone down enormously, so people previously unable to afford certain first-world luxuries now consider them as everyday items. Even in the remotest villages of the poorest countries where there is no national grid, just one generator inevitably there will be mobile phones.

7. What is designed in one country may be made with fabric from a second, manufactured in a third and distributed in a fourth. The owner of the business might live in a fifth. Goods are manufactured where labour is cheapest. One pair of my Old Navy jeans was made in Vietnam, another identical pair in Haiti.

8. It costs 70% extra to ship an empty container back to its home port. But only 10% to dump it. This has resulted in parks of rusting containers inelegant in their uselessness. There are small industries reusing these containers as homes, bars, even swimming pools and small industrial etc units. But nothing like enough to rid the world of these piled-up, ugly big boxes.

9. And for this we have to thank Malcom McLean, a trucker turned genius entrepreneur with a vision for globalisation.

In regions like the Caribbean with small islands, containers are broken down into small units for shipping to even smaller islands on cargo boats. Men standing on the goods 'armed' with machetes slash the polythene wrapping or cut down between boxes unloaded from the containers. This is why all four of my leather chairs came slashed making them immediately 'shabby chic' or worse. This is just part of the price one pays to live in paradise and not be fully globalised as yet.
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Notes on reading the book

The thinking behind ships and trains etc had to change before containers could take over the freight world. Ships had to stop thinking they were in the sailing business, for instance, and begin to see themselves as freight-movers. Everything they did had to be with the idea of the best, cheapest, easiest way to handle freight and get it on it's way. Once they did that, the box container was set to change the world.... and it has.

Shipping had previously been so expensive that they were best made locally even if the raw materials had to be imported. Now the material might be bought in one country, shipped to another for manufacture and to a third for sale faster and cheaper than when goods were packed in boxes and loaded and unloaded piece by piece by longshoremen. Previous to containers a ship might be in port a week loading and unloading and need a fair size crew on board. Since containers, 20 men can run a ship the length of three football pitches and it can be loaded/unloaded and on it's way within 24 hours.

I knew quite a lot about shipping, partly from previous reading, but just generally. But this book is all about detail, and there are many aspects to containerisation that are interesting. Not all good - all the dockers out of work but ever since the Industrial Revolution men have been replaced by machines. Our cleverness is not necessarily the best thing for humanity but is unstoppable.
Profile Image for Amin.
314 reviews319 followers
March 5, 2019
چه کسی به ذهنش می‌رسد تا درباره اثر کانتینر یا همان "جعبه" بعنوان یک تکنولوژی انقلابی در تجارت دنیا کتابی بنویسد؟ بله؛ کسی که در این صنعت استخوان خرد کرده و با سازوکارش به خوبی آشناست

نویسنده این آشنایی را به رادیکال ترین شکل در کتاب به رخ خواننده می‌کشد، یعنی با بیان دقیق‌ترین و موشکافانه‌ترین جزئیات، از زندگی مالکوم مک‌لین که پدر کانتینری کردن حمل و نقل است، تا سرسام آورترین جزئیات در فصل‌های میانی که جنگل را میان درختان گم می‌کند و خواننده را گیج

به طور خلاصه، روایت این تکنولوژی ساده انقلابی را می‌توان در رد پایش در تغییر سازوکار کسب و کار بنادر از شیوه های سنتی به مدرن و مکانیزه، نیاز به سرمایه گذاری های وسیع و کمکهای دولتی و مقابله با اتحادیه های کارگری، تا پیشرفت تکنولوژی های کشتی سازی، استاندارد شدن سایز و فرآیندها، بالابردن مقیاس برای کاهش هزینه و ظهور چند کارتل و شرکت بین المللی جستجو کرد. مسیری که به خوبی چرخه یک تکنولوژی انقلابی از ظهور تا استاندارد شدن و اثراتش بر دنیا را نشان می‌دهد

اما همان طور که گفتم، جزئیات کتاب به نحو سرسام‌آوری زیاد است و شاید میشد کتاب را در نصف این حجم نیز نگاشت. بنابراین برای فهم کلی مطالب شاید مطالعه فصل اول و دو فصل آخر کفایت کند. ترجمه هم کاستی هایی دارد اما با توجه به وجود واژه های تخصصی در متن اصلی، شاید همچنان مطالعه ترجمه فارسی سریع تر بوده و خالی از لطف نباشد
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,885 followers
December 13, 2020
Many thanks to the publisher for my ARC of the second edition

Technological disruptors play an immense role in human history. None more so than the humble shipping container, the subject of this four-hundred-page study by Economist and Author Levin. What began, I gather, as an interest in the life of Malcom McLean (no, I didn't misspell "Malcolm"), whose 1956 shipment of twenty-eight containers of his own design onto ships also modified to his design, to Houston, Texas, began the era of rapid globalization, turned into an economist's dream: a chance to study the economic and social and political impact of a disruptive technology before its fiftieth year of existence arrived. (We are now in the sixty-fifth year of the container revolution, and even the pandemic can't stop the trains, ships, and trucks from rolling.)

There's quite a lot more to say about the book, and I said it here.
Profile Image for Osamah.
61 reviews8 followers
June 6, 2017
We all take shipping containers for granted. We all know what they are and what purpose they serve, but did you ever stop to ponder the role they play in international commerce or how they came about to be the standard method of shipping in the world? My family has been in the shipping business since 1890 and the shipping container is something I constantly heard my father talk about since my earliest childhood: "cost per container", "offloading containers", "trucks and trailers", and so forth. And yet even I have never given containers any thought. They just exist, and that's that.

I bought this book thinking it would give me insight about the field of family business that I chose not to join and never learned about. Instead I learned that the shipping container is a relatively recent invention and that containerships came about only a few years before my birth. What I thought was a "given" standard method, was actually an innovation that started as an experiment in 1957 which didn't fully develop until the 1960's and didn't come into full steam until the 1970's around the time of my birth.

The Box tells a fascinating story about a very unlikely subject. Container shipping is a disruptive technology which impacted thousands (if not millions) of lives and changed commerce. The shipping container is one of the main engines of globalization as we know it. The book can get a little technical at times and some of the data it presents might be too much for the casual reader. I admit I skimmed through some of that. I wish it had pictures and illustrations to accompany the descriptions as well as the people, particularly the main players such as Malcolm McLean. I'm not sure maybe the print edition had them, but I read the Kindle version which didn't have any pictures.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th century commerce, logistics, or disruptive technologies or innovations.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book697 followers
June 11, 2012
lots of fun. Malacca-Max will likely be my favorite new word for a few weeks. my big question after reading this: what's keeping someone, say me, from building nuclear-powered megabulk carriers of truly tremendous draft, using them as motherships, driving them outside of economic exclusion zones to avoid all the hogwash nonsense nuclear regulation, and linking up with fast oil-burners for final portside delivery? you don't want cranes on your oilburners due to weight imbalance problems, but you're not gonna have a weight imbalance on a ship a mile long. this would be a great little nuclear renaissance! i'd love to see it done. The character of Malcom (sic) McLean was a great pleasure and inspiration.

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i like how you can replace 'shipping container' with 'hoo-ha' in this title and it not only still works, but would probably sell more copies. ahhh, the joys of pop science! or pop engineering(?) as the case may be.
41 reviews24 followers
September 18, 2021
A surprisingly fun read about containers, container ships and containership companies. I'm convinced there are hundreds of such low cost low tech solutions that have revolutionised the world.

It's well written and worth reading if you're interested in learning about the history of moving goods, and a box.
Profile Image for Chris.
1,349 reviews32 followers
September 3, 2009
Forget about the internet, the container is what has made us a global village. At times fascinating and other times dryer than the hills of California this book looks at transportation evenly and thoroughly. My biggest complaint about this book is its total lack of diagrams, photos, maps, etc.. There are a few tables of data and that's it. Not even a picture of Malcom McLean, the guy who made the container a reality. The interesting thing about this subject is that no one could accurately predict what would happen to include McLean who went into bankruptcy with a shipping company. I had hoped for a more Malcolm Gladwell-like book, which it wasn't, but it's still worth a read.
Profile Image for Charles.
493 reviews79 followers
August 19, 2022
Globalization of international trade, what became the logistics industry, and the changes that ensued through the gradual adoption of container-based shipping.

description
Ever Ace, world’s largest container ship. 400m-long (1,300ft) by 61.5m (202ft) wide ship with a capacity for 23,992 standard containers. The Taiwanese, Evergreen Marine was not a container shipper until 1982.

My dead tree version was 376-pages. It had a US 2006 copyright. This book includes: Abbreviations, Footnotes, Bibliography, and an Index.

Marc Levinson is an economist and business journalist. He has written 5-books on finance and economics. This is the first book I’ve read by the author.

This book was an intermediate work. Although, the author goes a long way towards making what could have been a dull subject into a good read. It’s recommended having some background in international trade and 20th century maritime history before reading this book.


TL;DR Synopsis
”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


Containerization, the shipping of commodities in large standard sized metal boxes has reduced: transportation costs, transportation time, cargo theft, shipping damage, and insurance costs. The “Three Cs”; one Container (8’ x 8’ x 20’ or 40’ (HxWxL) in volume), one Commodity (boots, machine parts, refrigerated Australian mutton, synthetic rubber, etc.) one Customer (Walmart, Schneider Electric, Mitsubishi Motors ,US Army Material Command (AMC), etc.) are used in the shipping of most of the industrial world’s finished and intermediary (parts needed for finished) goods. The reliability and low cost of containerized trade is responsible for: modern supply and manufacturing chains, the industrialization of much of Asia, the low cost of domestic and imported consumer goods.

However, in the process of creating the globalized world economy: large companies failed, industries collapsed, the livelihoods of generations disappeared, business and political careers failed, and many industries re-located far from their origins impoverishing home regions at least temporarily. In addition, the modern fortunes of whole regions became victims of their geography and both political and financial crisis’ that they had previously been insulated from.

Adoption of containerization didn’t occur overnight. The low transportation costs that it brought haltingly developed over 30-years from the mid-1950’s to its now recognizable form in the mid-1980’s. The majority of that period was driven by US companies, now long gone. The book spends most of its narrative describing those early American-driven days and ends at the beginning of the new millennium with the rise of the European and Asian, late entrant Shippers that now dominate maritime container shipping.


Worth reading, if you have an interest in the American origins of the globalized economy.

The Review

Levinson wrote this book to describe the early history of container shipping. The time and money savings of this technology eventually lead to the global world economy. It’s very much an American history, where the current technology for maritime freight transportation originated.

American regulatory restrictions and protective rate setting originally blocked the technology’s application with the two other transportation modes of short-haul trucking and long-haul rail. Maritime freight offered less regulation at the time. Manually loading and unloading cargo ships could keep a ship at the pier for half of a voyage’s duration. This had the effect of increasing the cost of maritime freight transportation by more than half. The key business change in emphasis needed to revolutionize the industry was that shipping lines (the owners of ships) moved freight, not operated ships.

Automation of the loading and unloading could save time and money. It would greatly increase the utilization of ships, increasing the number of voyages per year while lowering their operating cost. Containerization, abetted the automation by creating fewer, larger, standard-sized packages to move.


The organization of the book was chronological. It started with a description of maritime cargo shipping post WWII. It segues into the story of Malcom P. McLean, an entrepreneurial truck line owner who recognized the opportunities in applying the principals of truck freight handling to maritime cargo. (He bought a shipping line and the rest is history.) There are several chapters on the impediments to adopting container technology. These were governmental, organized labor, and the sunk costs of the infrastructure, practices and procedures of maritime trade in use since the time of sail-powered ships that needed to be overcome. Standardization of the container into its current form used in intermodal (truck, rail and ship) freight gets its own chapter. Several chapters on the gradual adoption of containerization follow. Early, its most important cargo was military freight. The book ends with chapters on the scaling of containerization and its effect on maritime trade and the consolidation of the industry.

In general, the book’s prose was good. Levinson's training as a journalist shows through. It was more approachable than the great majority of economic histories I’ve read. Although, I did find an occasional grammar error that copyediting should have caught and corrected.

Still, this was not "light" reading. The presentation was very even throughout in its level-of-detail. Although, it assumed a basic understanding of macroeconomics, late 20th Century history, and the effects of trade on the economy. Economics terms are used without definition. Having an understanding of maritime transport’s importance in the global economy would be helpful. Asian geography is frequently referenced. It could be technically dense in places. For example, statistics on tonnage moved over time were discussed in detail. There was also a lot of technical detail on: mechanical engineering, structural engineering, naval engineering, and the civil engineering (of port facilities). Likewise, transportation technologies, techniques and procedures were discussed. In addition, the patterns of maritime trade between regions was discussed using naval terminology. (Reading this, you were expected to know your “deep water port” from “starboard”.)


I thought the book would have benefitted from a greater discussion of the geography world trade as it developed in the late 20th Century. For example, the Panama Canal, the Malacca Strait and their relationship to the few deep water ports with high capacity container terminals was assumed to be common knowledge.

Maritime history, even modern maritime history, is always about charts and maps. Use of maps was inadequate. It could have been greatly improved. There was one (1) map used to illustrate the waters surrounding the port of New York. That was it. There were no maps on US intercostal trade showing ports and routes past and present. There were no maps showing global trade routes and ports past and present. An Atlas with place names was needed to be kept on-hand for reference of container ports. This was particularly important for out-of-the-way Asian container ports.

The top 100 container ports in the world, 2016
Map I used for container port geo-location

There were no photographs, and no diagrams. Illustrations would have been very helpful. For example, line diagrams of the 1950’s Liberty Ships used for breakbulk cargo and the second generation container ships would have been greatly appreciated for a compare an contrast.

Chart and graph usage was OK. The author occasionally used tables and line graphs. I would have preferred a few bar graphs myself, for the numerous tonnages or containers per unit time. Graphics usage would have benefited the reader, in particular given the numerical and technical nature of some of the narrative. I wished the author had read, Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information .

Levinson expected the reader to already have a passing familiarity with late 20th Century American political history and world events. Like all histories, this was a story of: men (like Malcom P. McLean), machines (like 40’ containers) and organizations (like labor unions) in contention.


Individuals were more likely to be mentioned in the context of: owning or running transportation companies, mayors of (then) port cities, leaders of government agencies, and heads of labor unions. In most cases, the individuals came-out as ‘resisting change’. Competing ship line owners protected their routes from other shipping lines. Railroad managers tried to protect their higher revenues on ‘box car’ freight from container freight. Longshoreman tried to protect their livelihoods manually loading and unloading breakbulk freighters at dockside. Mayors of established, urban port cities tried to protect their waterfront industries. The leaders of government agencies tried to protect their ability to regulate.

Levinson was successful in describing the technology of the containerization and their application and evolution during the shipping ‘revolution’.

The standard container didn’t appear ‘full form’ in the late 1950’s. There were years of trial and error. Several different, similar types of containers were in use by different shipping lines for years. The different lines required different equipment at their terminals, where they were loaded and unloaded. Eventually, it was international shipping that standardized the container and made terminals and ships interchangeable. It was the purpose-built container ships voyaging to Asia and Europe using the standard 20’ or 40’ containers that eventually standardized containers for truck, ship and railroad transportation.

Container ships were designed for the lowest cost per ton of freight and the least amount of time loading and unloading in port. They were terribly expensive in comparison to the ex-WWII surplus freighters previously used for carrying smaller, breakbulk cargos. They had to be constantly in motion to be profitable. Eventually, they became so large that only the deepest water container ports with the largest and most efficient terminals were used. (A deep water port allows entry and egress a low tide with drafts of 10 1/2 meters (>35 feet).)

Container ports prospered as manufacturing and transportation clustered around them. Less capable ports became subordinate ‘feeder’ ports. Massive cranes that could 'straddle' a container ship were a large expense, as well as large areas for container storage. Some region's expensively containerized ports fell into disuse. Their commodities arrived by rail and then truck through the ‘mega-ports’. Economies of scale were ruthlessly exploited. Large container ships from Shanghai will land their cargo in either Long Beach CA or Los Angeles. These are the US's largest west coast deep water ports. The ship utilization is higher shuttling back and forth across only the Pacific as quickly as possible. Rail is used to ship the containers to New York/New Jersey. That provides a quicker, lower cost delivery vs. the ship traveling through the Panama Canal to NY/NJ.

Inspection of organizational behavior was heavily oriented toward Malcom McLean’s innovative and aggressively managed shipping companies.

Before McLean arrived, US maritime shipping was a highly regulated, protected and coddled industry. Shipping rates were very high and the pace of delivery was leisurely at best. Owning his own shipping line and leveraging automation and large containers (neither of which were regulated) shook-up the industry. Some shipping lines emulated him. They lasted the longest.

Labor unions were in contention with both their governments and the shipping lines. The livelihood of the great majority of their membership was at stake. Only a fraction of longshoremen were needed to load and unload a container ship. The unions were eventually bought-out or broken. Local governments fought containerization. The post WWII major ports were in urban centers like New York, London, and San Francisco.

Elected officials know the value of taxable industries. Since sailing ship times, urban ports supported urban manufacturing. A traditional Manhattan pier might use an average of three (3) city blocks of waterfront and be one (1) block ‘deep’ or narrow waterfront strip of about seven (7) acres. Factories clustered behind the piers. Residential neighborhoods were behind the factories. The current very large Port of Los Angeles has seven (7) container terminals on 4,300 land acres (average 600 acres per terminal). The old sea ports in their built-up urban locations didn’t have the open area for container terminals. The shipping companies left the urban ports taking their dependent manufacturers, their workers and their tax revenues with them.

Governments at the national and regional level financed expensive container ports. This was regional development, in the idea of Build it and they will come.. Some shipping lines did, but only for a short period. Their leaving for better located or more efficient ports left the governments paying their bonds out-of-pocket.

As mentioned above, railroads resisted containers for decades to protect their traditional box car shipping. It was only in after the rail, trucking, and maritime deregulation in the 1980s that the tri-model of overseas-ship, short distance ground-truck and long distance-rail shipping evolved.

The great strength of this book was it traced the origin of modern supply chains to its American origins in The Three C’s. A problem I had was it was firstly an American history for most of the book. This is despite the fact that today, container shipping is now a European and Asian-headquartered industry. Euro and Asian, particularly Chinese containerization is only sparsely discussed. This surged in the mid-1980s. It’s a peculiar and not well explained example of Second-mover advantage. That occurs when firm(s) following the lead of the first-movers (in this case American) are able to capture greater market share, despite having entered late.

This book was a story of: men, metal boxes and organizations in contention. Its American historical focus showed that modern supply chains are based on containerization and automation. In greatly reducing the cost of imports and exports that lifted the fortunes of whole populations through trial and error over 30-years. However, it also depressed that fortunes of some populations, at least temporarily through the changes in traditional trading patterns that had existed for centuries.


This is a worthwhile read for someone who already has a background in 20th Century history and is interested in the history of international trade. Note the book is 15-years old. A lot has changed since then. Although, you can see your way to the present through this book. Despite being somewhat technical, too focused on American examples, and without proper maps, the book clearly describes the change in global trade over a short period of time through the usage simple, large metal boxes on ships. By reading this book, familiarity with supply chains, logistics, and globalization shall ensue.

Readers of this book may also be interested in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy. I have also added Levinson’s Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas to my TBR. Finally, I recommend watching On the Waterfront (1954) either before of during the reading of the first half of this book. It provides a good example of the longshoreman and their trade discussed in the book.
Profile Image for Jill.
684 reviews31 followers
April 5, 2009
The Box tries to do many things at once - describing how the advent of the shipping container changed trade flows, transformed cities from New York City to Felixstowe to Long Beach and Oakland, and changed the nature of the livelihood of dockworkers. The Box probably fares best on the latter two fronts. Its account of the decline of NY's ports as the Port Authority of NY shifted its operations towards Elizabeth and Newark, how it led to a hollowing out of manufacturing operations and the subsequent transformation of obsolete port infrastructure like Pier 42 and Chelsea Piers into other uses is fascinating for those interested in NYC history. Likewise, the narrative on the bruising battles between longshoremen unions like the Int'l Longshoremen's Association and shipping interests and the complex system that had evolved over the years to provide work [or a semblance of it:] to union members. France's 35 weeks is nothing by comparison....

The Box is weakest when it tries to explain the economics of container shipping. The lack of early data on container shipping is probably one cause - Levinson pulls out random data willy nilly to support his thesis but the fragmented data doesn't always present a compelling case, coming across as ad hoc justifications. I also found these parts of the narrative to be rather dry and lacking the coherent flow of the other sections.
Profile Image for Michael.
14 reviews11 followers
February 18, 2015
A seriously boring book with subject matter that would be more fascinating as a long form blog article.

Instead this book reads like a dull academic treatment.
Profile Image for Paul.
65 reviews8 followers
December 11, 2013
Let’s be honest, the evolution of shipping containers isn’t the first thing that springs to mind for a reading list recommendation.

You might struggle to believe that interest could be sustained on the topic at article length much less for an entire book – and you’d be dead wrong.

The hum-drum box unleashed a wave of disruption that smashed union power, consigned thousands of workers to the scrapheap, devastated established city ports, uplifted backwater areas and, as an unforeseen consequence, ultimately became an engine of globalization.

Marc Levinson’s meticulously researched work takes us into a world of cartel stitch-ups, protectionist regulation, corrupt officialdom and high stakes gambles involving billions of dollars in a freight industry arms race that was ruinously expensive for many of its players.

Pioneers like trucking boss Malcolm McLean, the epitome of a self-made man, was a driving force in propelling change, but even his boundless energy after a dockside Eureka moment wasn’t enough.

Change had to be dogged out in a series of frustrating battles over standards, subsidies and route restrictions. There were bet-the-farm buy-outs, leveraged acquisitions and some nimble creative thinking to circumvent the resistance of entrenched vested interests.

It was the Vietnam War that provided one of the key breakthroughs: the military supply chain wasn’t able to keep pace with the rapid commitment of American forces and chaos ensued.

With no dedicated port facilities, supply ships had to lay-up offshore, unload cargoes onto lighters, which then had to be manhandled again at piers and docksides. On this scale, sheer muscle simply wasn’t enough and the military accepted the intervention of the private sector.

Since then, a sophisticated logistics industry has developed, one that touches our lives every day whether it’s through supermarket supply chains or just-in-time delivery of components to manufacturing plants.

The cost savings set in train by the shipping container, on labor, on warehousing, on insurance, on turnaround times, on delivery speeds, were profound. So much so, that industry no longer had to locate its factories where its customers were. China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea with cheap pools of labor and access to US ports were able to take advantage of the new economics of the freight trade and global business was born.
38 reviews
April 25, 2022
The books takes through the history of development of container shipping and its importance for exponential jump in global trade. It was far from being an easy transition. I enjoyed the the book throughout and could see parallels to disruptions that we get to see due to Internet.
Profile Image for Andy.
357 reviews57 followers
October 13, 2014
Fantastic history of something you wouldn't realize deserves a history. Traces the introduction of standardized containers into the modern shipping industry and examines its impact on the shipping industry itself (obviously), other transportation industries, manufacturing, labor unions, and social dynamics of waterfront cities. Enthusiastic without being too preachy, very insightful and thought-provoking, and the one accusation that could be leveled is that occasionally (just occasionally) it is a little dry.

I found the social impact of containerization particularly interesting - I live in NYC and it is fascinating to imagine standing on the piers along the Hudson and rolling the clock backwards and seeing it turn into a bustling old-style waterfront. (This book also made me want to head out to Elizabeth to see the docks there, where all the shipping went.) I'd love to read more about what cities that lost out on shipping business did with their waterfronts. Examples of these mentioned in the book include Manhattan and Brooklyn, San Francisco, Boston, and London - all of which are considered very desirable places to live, probably with valuable office and residential buildings occupying old pier space, and it's unclear that they really lost in the long run by no longer being major ports of call.

Aside from great stories and details about the shipping industry specifically, this book is a great case study in the impact of a disruptive technology (sorry to use that now-badly-overused word, but that's what it is). Containerization illustrated many lessons about such technologies:

- It's never obvious that it's going to work at first
- The benefits are not always reaped by the first entrants
- True benefits can take many years to emerge, while other parts of the economy reshape themselves to fit the disruption
- There is not much use in fighting technological developments OR, less obviously, the repercussions they will have on society - the best we can do is smooth the way a little bit for people who are hurt to adapt
- It's not easy to predict who will benefit and who will be hurt by technological changes, and over what time frames these benefits and hurts will accumulate - any prognostication really needs to acknowledge its own limits and uncertainties

At 31, I'm too young to have experienced a world where the fruits of containerized shipping weren't at my fingertips, but I imagine that this book might be especially enjoyable for older generations of readers who might be able to trace the rise of containerization with changes in the economy they remember seeing in their lives.
11 reviews
January 25, 2014
A little dry in parts, but the basic subject matter is fascinating.

One of the oldest, largest, and most important parts of the global economy, the shipment of goods, transformed completely in only a couple of decades. Huge ports like New York collapsed suddenly, losing tens of thousands of jobs, as all shipping moved across the river to the drained swamp of Elizabeth, NJ. Economies transformed, as moving goods went from one of the largest costs to nearly free, enabling huge supply chains and the rise of Asian manufacturing.

Fun to read while browsing through Google Maps to see the endless container-filled concrete aprons of Singapore, Long Beach, Guangzhou, etc.
7 reviews1 follower
February 2, 2022
What's in the box?
̶P̶a̶i̶n̶ Everything.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,458 reviews217 followers
November 6, 2022
The Box deserves all of its accolades. The shipping container is one of the least romantic objects imaginable, a 40' by 8' by 8' steel and wood box full of, well, everything and anything. The basic idea behind containerization is that it takes about the same amount of time to move a box, no matter the size, and putting everything in one box enables goods to move from ship to train to truck at minimum cost, accelerating commerce everywhere. But while the idea seems simple, it took decades to make it a reality.

Levinson gets at both the creation and destruction in this account. The creation primarily follows Malcom McLean, a North Carolina trucking magnate who's relentless desire to cut costs and boldness to steer away from the way things were done created the first workable modern container system, using a pair of World War 2 vintage converted tankers. McLean was a lonely visionary at first, with other shipping lines taking decades to see the benefits of containers, even at 400% improvements in cost per ton of cargo moved. Containerization necessarily required massive capital investments in new ships and specialized loading gear, harmonization of international and cross-sector regulations across a multiple cartels, and new shipping practices from customers. A major turning point was the use of containers to ease a crisis in military logistics during the Vietnam War. With McLean's expenses covered by the Department of Defense, everything shipped back from Japan was pure profit. We've all benefited from reliability and cheapness of container shipped materials and goods.

But there was also plenty of destruction. Longshoremen unions were hit hardest. Longshoremen loaded and unloaded ships in a manner that their medieval predecessors would have understood, muscling goods between dock and hold only slightly aided by advances like the pallet, forklift, and powered crane. Being a longshoreman was a dangerous trade, injury rates were substantially higher than for other manual labor, but the tens of thousands of longshoremen were a unique community. They were also heavily involved with organized crime, pilferage, and while I'm generally on board with a "fuck all the bosses" stance, deliberate inefficiency in work just barely short of sabotage. Containers required far fewer men than break-bulk loading, and it kicked the foundations out from under longshoremen.

A second set of victims were traditional port cities, primarily New York and London. With 19th century infrastructure and labor practices, these cities were unable to adapt to containers. When shipping had been a substantial cost, factories were close to markets and docks. New intermodal models meant that factories could chase efficiencies worldwide, leading to the lost decades for both cities in the 1970s as they shifted from industry to finance, and rippling Rust Belts as factories and jobs moved from America and Europe to Asia. Ports able to make bold bets on new technologies flourished, like Newark, Rotterdam, Singapore, and Dubai, while others failed based on the harsh economic logic of new integrated supply chains.

Malcom McLean himself hit some of the destruction. He made further bold bets into very fast ships that sunk his company when the 1973 oil embargo drove fuel costs up. A second bet on large round-the-world service hit the opposite problem when oil prices crashed. He was still a rich man, but he never again achieved that flashing acme of success.

This is a detailed, extensive history. Where there are gaps, such as on good pricing data for shipping over time, Levinson makes the case that such data is probably unrecoverable, due to shifting exchange rates, complex per-cargo rates, and under the table kickbacks to major shippers.
Profile Image for Mick.
131 reviews11 followers
March 19, 2013
The history of the humble shipping container may at first seem an odd subject for an entire book, until you consider its ubiquity and importance to the global economy. The triumph of containerization has truly changed the world, creating winners and losers. Marc Levinson's The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger charts the long, stilted development of an international standard for shipping containers and the effects this has had on economies, societies, and people.

It's difficult to exaggerate the impact of the shipping container. Where once cargo had to be loaded and unloaded by hand, now the only cargo is the long metal boxes which fill the holds of thousands of ships every day. It's been an enormous change, allowing for cheaper and faster shipping, greater diversity of products, and fewer hands at the docks. Levinson doesn't just concentrate on the technical aspects of it, but on the human elements as well. He examines how the adoption of container standards destroyed old longshore communities, and smashed unions, and how new ports sprang from nothing to accommodate the changed flow of seaborne goods.

This is an excellent book, which examines a fascinating underpinning of the global goods economy.
Profile Image for Sebastian.
111 reviews11 followers
May 31, 2022
The Box purports to be a story about shipping containers but is actually one about organized labor, the transformation of American cities, and the complex relationship between industry and government. Which makes plenty of sense as I don't imagine that there is a whole lot to say about the mechanics of a giant steel container -- or at least not 400 pages worth of content.

It was a fun, fast read, with some interesting learnings about logistics, but less in the way of new frameworks and ideas that change how I view the world.

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In the late 1940s and early 1950s, over 50,000 men in NYC were employed as longshoremen on the island of Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, running up and down narrow piers to load and unload irregular cargo -- 50 lb sacks of coffee beans, crates of mechanical parts, 20 lb cheese wheels, 440-pound bales of cotton and the like -- all from small ships [30]*. Life was nasty and brutish. Work was irregular and corruption and theft abounded [37]. Efforts to rein in the chaos through occupational licensing and permitting only seemed to make it possible for longshoremen to extract concessions from shippers and port authorities, and productivity fell: from 1.9 man hours / ton of cargo in 1950 to 2.6 man hours / ton of cargo in 1956 in NYC [38].

*Or in NYC's case on to railroad cars that were floated back and forth across the Hudson River from NJ. There was no natural rail connection near the docks on Manhattan, which necessitated this extremely wasteful system of lighter ships.

In this world, shipping costs dominated labor and energy costs for many types of goods. It made sense to locate industry near by where raw materials could be imported and finished goods would ultimately be consumed [2-3]. Hence, most coastal cities featured a busy waterfront, adjacent to a vibrant industrial plant, often adjacent to working class neighborhoods populated variously by Irish, Italian, and / or black laborers.

In the early 50s, along with problems at ports, the interstate highway system made trucking more economically viable, and trucking began to win domestic route market share from sea routes [47].

Enter Malcom Purcell MacLean, who built MacLean Trucking primarily through debt financing to the 3rd largest trucking company in the US by 1954 [57]. Largely he was moving tobacco products from Winston-Salem up the coast to various northeastern cities. Around '54 he also began to get concerned about competition from domestic coastal shipping as WW2-era watercraft came on the market at cut rates, and devised a scheme to drop truck trailers on to boats and skip the highways for some routes. So in 1955, he engineered possibly the first ever leveraged buy out to purchase Waterman and Pan-Atlantic, giving him control of a fleet to compliment his burgeoning trucking empire and an opportunity to test his radical idea of shipping containers [62-63].

By 1958 containers of various forms were starting to see early use. On MacLean's Sea-Land Service (Pan American and Waterman assets were renamed in the late 50s), running between Houston and Newark, and also on the west coast via Matson, shipping between Honolulu and Oakland [88-89]. While buzz was growing, there were still no standards for sizes and shapes, fleets would have to turn over to handle containers, and most ports in the US and abroad would require significant adaption to handle this kind of cargo (e.g. cranes additional dock space).

With the writing nonetheless on the wall about the future automation of longshoring with cranes and containers, the early 1960s saw some significant labor disputes come to a head. On the west coast the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) aligned on the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement in 1960. This agreement anticipating job losses as ports like Long Beach and Oakland containerized, guaranteed wages for a fixed number of longshoremen (gating entry and reducing new supply) and meanwhile paid out a significant number of age 60+ longshoreman to retire early [155]. Andrew Yang eat your heart out, we've been doing UBI in this country for 60 years already!

The east coast situation was more fragmented and messy and required intervention from JFK himself to resolve. As New Yorkers fought tooth and nail to preserve jobs, MacLean quietly built up the port of Newark to serve his container fleet and circumvented Manhattan and Brooklyn's thorny labor unions altogether. City officials, reliant on longshormen votes, were also loathe to give up Manhattan-based longshoring and it was at this time in the early '60s that Chelsea Piers got renovated [130], only to support a dying industry ... and later be revitalized only in 1994.

This pattern of building new ports to avoid labor conflict altogether in converting older ports plays out in a couple of different geographies, e.g. Felixstowe in the UK was built explicitly to avoid the friction of converting older port cities like Liverpool and Cardiff.

The book carries forward to the role of container shipping in Vietnam and finally just in time manufacturing and the global trade system that exists today.

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What began as an effort to make shipping less expensive ended by decimating the waterfronts of American cities. Not only did vibrant piers go silent, but manufacturing was incentivized to go where energy and labor costs were cheapest as transportation became a vanishing piece of any business's cost equation. I don't know what to make of this. We as a society got one thing, but certainly the 70s and 80s were known to be tough times in e.g. NYC, as whole communities and ways of life were shattered.

It isn't clear to me that anyone actually made money from this labor-saving technology. Taxpayers subsidized port redevelopments and shipping companies modernized fleets, but lots of companies mentioned in this book have long since gone under or e.g. been scooped up by Maersk like Sea-Land Service. It seems like there were a lot of frictional and mis-timed investments where ports and fleets didn't quite line up, or manufacturers weren't ready for container-sized volumes and utilization wasn't there. It seems like the last movers in this space were able to hoover up the corpses and ultimately capture the benefits of all this capital investment from containerization.
Profile Image for Colin Wright.
Author 61 books329 followers
January 8, 2014
This book, for me, had the same impact as taking art history classes in school. That is to say the information alone was fascinating and worthy of attention, but the overarching storyline also helped tie together disparate pieces of history to form a more cohesive whole. I love when that happens.

At times a little clunky and drowsiness-inducing (especially when there are pages and pages of number and data, which made me feel confident in the author's knowledge, but which I could have easily checked in the appendixes afterward had I been interested), The Box is gripping and focuses on a character who I'd never heard of, but who made a monumental impact on the world (and who sounds like just as striking a character as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or any caricature-worthy tycoon you can think of).

This book is very much worth reading, and once you do, you'll find yourself looking around the room, wondering what tales all the other common, invisible trappings of the modern world might hold.
Profile Image for missheliophilia.
60 reviews21 followers
December 26, 2018

90 percent of what we use, wear and eat is carried by ships. Anything you name can be found inside these boxes. It’s amazing to see how they make the world smaller but the world economy bigger.

3.6 stars. It’d be great to see photos included. For people who do not work in this industry, they would have a hard time to visualize.
1 review59 followers
August 11, 2008
would have been better as a long Atlantic/NYer article. Only read if you're really into transportation and logistics.
Profile Image for Sajith Kumar.
576 reviews88 followers
June 14, 2016
The period after the death of Soviet Union in the early 1990s is taken to be the time globalization took birth. Though historians would propose the early 19th century in the aftermath of Napoleonic wars, or even the late 16th century after the settling of the New World as the contenders to the start of globalization, there is no denying that the last decade of the last century saw tremendous improvement in international trade. Whereas raw materials came in one direction and end products travelled the other in earlier times, that pattern became increasingly blurred. Manufacturers could easily source intermediate products from far off places and that too, just in time. The Barbie Doll was made entirely in the U.S. earlier. Now the doll is manufactured in China, with clothes from Korea, hair from the U.S., colour from Japan and likewise. In this catalog of the tremendous pace of manufacturing in the era of globalization, one thing stands apart as the prime factor in helping achieve the goals – cheap and fast transport of cargo from one corner of the world to the other in containers. Hardly 50 years before, nobody had used it, while now, those who don’t use it is a nobody. Marc Levinson tells the thrilling story of containers from its conceptual stages to the modern era. The style is crisp and witty. With extensively researched data on cargo, Levinson has made an excellent work that presents the complexities of international trade simplified as to be enjoyable by general readers as well. The author is an economist in New York and has authored three books earlier. He had associated with leading economics publications like the Economist.

As an introduction, Levinson presents the sorry plight of dock workers and the enormous time and money wasted in transporting goods from one end of the globe to the other. A ship normally carries tens of thousands of discrete items in one journey. In the pre-container era, each of these items were separately packaged and stowed on board. This evidently led to wastage of space, which resulted in loss to the shipping company. As a result, manufacturers preferred to set up shop as near to customers as possible. Rapid industrialization seen after the Second World War in the western countries is the result of this trend. As market dynamics shifted and low-cost, long-distance shipping was made feasible with the use of containers, employers got the upper hand in bargaining with unions. If they proved too belligerent the factory owners could relocate to a Third World country, where the labour costs were dead cheap and the transportation costs were also low. In fact this factor contributed a great deal to the rise of globalization which we now take for granted. Dock workers were a tough lot before, in terms of the job they were doing and also when they were assessed on the personal level. The longshoreman had difficulty in finding a daily job for loading and unloading the ships. The work was hard, steady and not intellectually challenging. Supply far exceeded demand which encouraged cronyism and bribery on the part of harbour masters. Sometimes the workmen had to literally fight their way for a day’s work. With the advent of reforms, such practices were curtailed and with the coming of containers such jobs were effaced out of the industry altogether.

Malcolm Purcell McLean was the man who turned pivotal in the development of containers. Curiously he had no idea about shipping when he began his business of transportation through trucks. He used containers for lorry transport, which reduced the loading and unloading times. In a bid to expand his operations, McLean transported entire trucks on board ships to save costs. This gradually led to the containers themselves placed on the deck, which can be loaded to a waiting truck at the destination. McLean acquired shipping companies to try his novel ideas and his Pan Atlantic shipping line introduced the Sea-Land service, which later became a byname for container freight. On April 26, 1956, a ship sailed from Port Newark to Houston with containers, heralding a new era in the history of maritime trade. However, the new device didn’t find favour with labour unions that effectively ruled the Atlantic and Pacific costs of the U.S., wringing concession after concession from the shipping lines. Limitations of geography and traffic congestion were eating into the worthiness of New York’s ports, shifting the business to New Jersey coast. Unions took a demanding line in negotiations with the management in the general atmosphere of New York’s declining business and loss of jobs due to automation. Levinson paints a gruesome picture of the dock environment in which unions exercised their will under the always present threat of strike. In any industry, the management exploits the workers till they are organized into unions. The tide then reverses, in which the power conferred by collective bargaining constrain the management in no small measure. On the west coast of the country, ILWU, the more pragmatic of the unions reached a mechanization and modernization agreement with the ship lines in 1960, which was realized by the employers paying a huge sum of money in the form of guaranteeing income of workers who stood to lose their jobs on the account of automation and also to ensure sufficient funds for retirement of the workers. The east coast workers also reached a similar agreement in the form of guaranteed annual income. The chapter titled ‘Union Disunion’ presents a ring side view of the dock labour environment in the U.S. during the 50s and 60s.

When we look at the inventions that have since became ubiquitous, we tend to wonder at how the society could have lived without it, before it came into being. Electricity is one such thing and judging from the book, containers also deserve mention in that group. The entire shipping is now dominated by containers, thanks to its inherent advantages like low cost and less time for loading and unloading. However, Levinson presents a different story in the first decade since the first ship sailed with containers in 1956. The size of the box was not standardized. This released a huge set of problems in the shipping arena that was still smarting from its introduction. The cranes, trucks and rail cars used for transporting one company’s containers couldn’t be used for containers of other ship lines. Standards-making agencies like American Standards Association (ASA) and International Standards Organization (ISO) immediately entered the fray to make norms for sizing individual containers. After hectic deliberations that involved countries from both sides of the Atlantic, the world eventually settled on boxes having lengths in multiples of 10 feet, the most commonly used being 20 footers. As the standard war was heating up American shipping, Europe and Asia waited for finalization of it. So when the standards were adopted, they quickly came on the fray and derived maximum benefit out of it. Even now, the top six positions in terms of world container traffic are occupied by Asian ports – Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Busan and Kaoshung. Containers got a big boost in international shipping which helped ease the logical nightmares faced by the U.S. military in Vietnam in 1956. Over a period of a few months, the military was thoroughly convinced of the efficiency of containers. Even with all this, it is ironic to learn that the father of containerization, Malcom McLean died a bankrupt, having lost his money in shipping after his plans were upset by geopolitics in the form of unexpected falls and rallies of oil price. All the container ships around the world sounded their whistles at the instant of McLean’s cremation as a mark of respect.

The book could have done better with a few photographs that would add interest. Levinson sells his ideas on containers with conviction, but some of the claims seem to be a little too tall. He assigns the great increase in international trade to the better conditions provided by containerization. This is hardly the case. Apart from easing some of the bottlenecks that was hindering trade expansion, containers were greatly affected by the oscillating equations of global commerce and its pricing policies. Instead of asserting one to be the direct offspring of the other, we can only grant that globalization and containerization are the two streams that merged to produce the revolution that we see today. The book includes a fine section of notes, a good bibliography and a thorough index.

This book is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Josh Friedlander.
707 reviews99 followers
January 29, 2020
In the introduction the author recalls telling people he was writing a history of shipping containers only to be met with stunned silence. What more boring topic is imaginable? But since the book came out, containers are in; in art, architecture, history, and even computer programming. Levinson argues that the container's importance as catalyst of globalisation may have shaped the modern economic landscape more than any other factor, although it's hard to corroborate - the book is intentionally written without quantitative support, perhaps owing to the paucity of data.

The core story is in many ways a neoliberal parable, with technological innovation and the irrepressible entrepreneur Malcolm McLean overcoming corrupt and inefficient dockers' unions, who wish to oppose progress even as their jobs become less and less relevant. But Levinson, a former Economist reporter with a fairly eclectic background, is too good a historian to paint things only one way. In a detailed - too detailed? - history of negotiations between the longshoremen's union and port authorities in San Francisco, a deal was struck whereby a tax on the new shipping containers would pay to make up for lost jobs, paying people for eight-hour days until retirement and preserving their pensions, while reducing the amount of new hires. Automation thus actually brought about better conditions (less physical strain, and fixed instead of provisional work), though ultimately there would be fewer jobs. And It was less fun - the romance of the docks was gone for good, with famous port towns replaced by large, factory-like ports in little-known cities. (A rare bird this: a labour history written by a neoliberal!)

Not just shipping jobs, either: the great decline in American manufacturing, and some of the politics of our moment, can be traced to the evisceration of shipping costs, which drastically shrunk the planet. In the global, hyperefficient market, there is room only for a few large players, and most port cities - and shipping lines and manufacturing industries - will lose. Today's behemoths are globe-striding conglomerates such as Maersk (formally Danish) and Mediterranean Shipping Company (Swiss). Previously shipping company were national and often regulated and subsidised; the US still has on its books the Jones Act, which requires ships trading between US ports to be American built and crewed, and it's unlikely to be repealed anytime soon.

There are definitely some tedious parts in this book (an entire chapter on ideal box size and design!) But I'm glad I read it: it tells the history of an unsexy, little-recognised, low-margin industry, that is intimately connected to every product we buy.
Profile Image for Siddharth.
163 reviews54 followers
November 4, 2019

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.


Profile Image for William Bentrim.
Author 64 books58 followers
June 27, 2018
The Box by Marc Levinson

The box is the ubiquitous metal container that is seen at loading docks, on the back of semi-trucks, at harbors and wherever goods are transported. According to Levinson, the container changed the worlds economy.

Surprisingly this non-fiction book was more interesting than I expected. The introduction of shipping goods by containers revolutionized international shipping. It changed the geographic aspects of commerce due to the location of ports acceptable to container ships. The transshipping of containers via train and truck impacted the placement of factories, towns and jobs.

Levinson offers a quite convincing argument for the world changing aspects of the not so simple container.

126 reviews1 follower
July 1, 2022
Absolutely fascinating. An excellent case-study of technological innovation, the dynamics of regulation, labor unions, cartels, the development of capital-intensive industries and the role of logistics in shaping the world we live in.

Highly recommend to anyone interested in any of these questions.
29 reviews3 followers
August 8, 2020
A lot of potential but marred by some very dry writing. And a book like this could've really done with more illustrations, pictures, graphs and tables.
Profile Image for Ethan.
87 reviews5 followers
February 7, 2016
You might think that the Cliffs Notes summary of The Box would be enough. Yes, the shipping container revolutionized the global economy by almost eliminating considerations of shipping cost and geographic proximity in the manufacturing supply chain. This development allowed factories to locate essentially anywhere - not just near transportation hubs - and so radically reshaped longstanding trade patterns and practices. It’s not too extreme to say that the shipping container played an oversized role in making manufactured goods widely accessible and affordable at a scale previously unattained, so increasing the standard of living of hundreds of millions of people.

But if you stopped there, you would miss the fascinating and by no means inevitable story of just how the entrepreneurs behind the container effected such powerful change. Levinson does not focus exclusively on the shipping container itself, but shows how broader trade systems and relationships were required to change the box to make its impact. His assiduous research convincingly quantifies the impact of each development, with the mountain of data only occasionally obscuring the human narrative.

The most optimistic lesson of The Box is that entrepreneurial energy can harness technology to upend even the most ossified, over-regulated, labor-dominated industries for the greater benefit of people. After WWII, the shipping industry was completely regulated, heavily unionized, and centrally controlled, including (especially) in the United States, with little mechanical interoperability. No, one, certainly not regulators or workers, was trying to innovate or otherwise improve the system. The introduction and widespread deployment of the shipping container and related inventions and trade practices upended the industry, greatly increasing trade around the world - without needing to start with central regulatory or labor reform. The case of the shipping container demonstrates that better technology can overcome entrenched regulation and obsolete work restrictions (foreshadowing how Uber and similar services are dismantling the corrupt taxi cartels.)

What’s more, container entrepreneurs didn’t just invent a new form of storage and ships to carry it, but also knit together the entire supporting infrastructure - from reworking the contract structures of the trucking industry to creating consortia to agree on standardized designs for new harbor equipment. They actually worked together, legally and productively, to revolutionize the very basis of trade - without any central regulatory push. While I don't think self-regulation works in every case in every industry - banking and related financial services have not earned any credibility on this front - Levinson makes a persuasive case for how shipping entrepreneurs "hacked" (my term) the system for the good of all.

Of course some shipping centers refused to accommodate the standardized container (largely because labor unions were unwilling to update agreements to accommodate the new technology), and their ultimate demise caused localized economic pain - "good" jobs and trade were lost. But even more communities embraced the new system, enabling rich trade centers to grow where previously geographically impossible. The overarching testament of the The Box is that economics and trade are not a zero sum game - that reducing cost while increasing quality and reliability can radically increase overall demand for a service. That if something is easier, cheaper, and better, then more people will buy it. The size of the pie increases enough so that all participants in the system, including both the entrepreneurs who take risks to innovate and the workers who enable the trade, actually benefit from the plummeting of costs of transactions.

The Box is fundamentally data-driven. A few colorful personalities emerge, but Levinson builds the story primarily on how and where trade flowed, and the before/after effects of specific policies and technologies. While this approach of course buttresses its credibility, The Box is therefore likely to appeal those of a wonkish bent - entrepreneurs, technologists, inventors, policy-makers, and investors who want to understand the nuts of and bolts of one of the most far-reaching and beneficial innovations in history.
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