The Box

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2006)  by Marc Levinson is a remarkable book that documents a largely ignored radical change in the world.

Levinson is a former Economist writer and economist who has chosen a great subject and documented with aplomb. Levinson is aware how much greatly reduced goods transportation costs have made to the world. He points out that in the 1950s manufacturing was located around the world and was often fairly small because that was the best way to make things even without tariffs. Transportation costs for many goods were huge. The docks were the major block. Vast numbers of dock workers were required to slowly empty ships, also stealing and damaging substantial amounts of goods on the way. Shipping in many countries was also highly regulated and large cartels also fixed prices.

In the 1950s Malcom Mclean , who was a trucking millionaire turned his attention to shipping. He decided that containerisation would be a cheap way to transport goods and converted a ship to become a container ship. The IdealX and it’s ilk would transform shipping. Initially conaintainers were not fantastically successful, the massive investments in the docks and in ships that made the container revolution were yet to come.

In the 1960s containerisation would gain ground and get a big boost with the US military adopting it to fix their huge supply problem with the troops in Vietnam. Container standards had to be created, there were initial plethora of different sizes before the 20 foot ( TEU ) and 40 foot container would be adopted.

In the late 1960s containerisation took off globally, small ports that adapted and invested in cranes and were able to connect with trains and trucks for ground transportation. Ports that failed to adapt were then left behind.The path wasn’t smooth, the oils shock of the 1970s and over expansion would bankrupt many firms, including McClean’s and sea the rise of others.

The container, the decline of the docks and the massive change to manufacturing would transform the world. Dock employment and the vast numbers of docks in places like New York and San Francisco were to shut down. The small manufacturing jobs nearby would also disappear as more efficient, larger manufacturing plants that were just connected to the container flow would take off. Felixstowe, Singapore, Newark, Oakland and other places would take off as the centers of world shipping.

Levinson does a great job of highlighting the rise, the follies and the triumph of the container. He makes the debates over standardisation amusing. He also makes some great meta points about the problems of working out how much containerisation had reduced shipping costs because the difficulty of trying to work out what rates were in the recent past. Levinson is fully aware of the economic impact and highlights the importance of the container to the world. The book is well worth a read for anyone looking for a surprising, well written and captivating non-fiction read.

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