The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
© 2006 Marc Levinson
It’s not every day an invention completely revolutionizes its industry, let alone the world. And yet that’s what the shipping container, a mere box, did. Within a few years’ time, it rose from one ambitious entrepreneur’s scheme for expediting freight shipments into the global standards, one which completely replaced methods of shipping which had endured for thousands of years. Gone were the huge numbers of longshoremen required to pack and unpack hundreds of pallets per ship, and the ‘inventory shrinkage’ that accompanied it. Within a decade of its introduction, mighty ports like London and New York had been completely humbled, outmoded by containerization – a technology which offered seamlessly integrated freight distribution across sea, rail, and road, but at a price of wholescale adoption of it and the new equipment produced to carry it. The Box details shipping containers’ genesis, their rise in use, and the effects of their adoption, like greater concentration of shipping interests into a few big lines and increased government involvement in the service – both results of the amount of resources needed to earn greater profit-by-volume. The account is sometimes dry (there’s a considerable section on the problems of finding just the right corner fittings for the Box), but enlivened by some of its personalities – especially Malcolm McLean, the truck driver who introduced containers in the United States because it allowed him to bypass his competitors. An unruly risk-taker, McLean appears throughout the volume, which almost chronicles his taking over world trade: every time containers made prodigious advances, like becoming the American standard or moving into international routes, he was there. (The fact that the entire volume of traffic between the United States and Britain could be handled by five container ships should give modern readers an idea of how containerization allowed a few large lines to begin dominating the industry. Container ship lines are truly the ‘big box’ stores of the seas.) To begin appreciating how world-unifying globalized trade began, look no further than The Box.