Shipping containers are everywhere, millions of them. They travel two high on rails across the country. They are trailing big wheelers on the highways. And thousands at a time are loaded upon enormous shipping vessels to be unloaded and reloaded in record times at port terminals across the globe.
I recently finished The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson. The book profiles the intriguing history of the shipping container and how it affected local and world commerce. Levinson’s portrait largely follows the narrative of entrepreneur Malcolm McLean. The businessman founded Sea-Land shipping company, the first transportation company to specialize in containerization.
McLean had a brilliantly simple idea, instead of packing everything into a ship, unpacking it, sorting it, putting the various items on a truck or a train and unpacking them again, put everything in a container. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s McLean envisioned a universal transportation system where goods could be placed in one box and shipped around the world without ever being handled, merely placing the same container on a ship, a train and a truck.
However, the idea did not really take off until the Vietnam War when the US military endorsed containerization as the most effective means to supply the 540,000 troops in Southeast Asia. When the military commissioned container ships standards suddenly needed to be enforced and there was an enormous consumer willing to pay for goods to be consistently shipped via this method.
Levinson does a wonderful job of making what could be a potentially dry corporate history become a world-changing event. The book still has its dry spots as readers slog through paragraphs on shipping data and increases in shipping volume. However, the book is full of great anecdotes regarding McLean and his competitors and the legal and business decisions they made. One of the dramatic highlights of the book is getting an inside view of the longshoremen union battles with the shippers as containerization went into effect. These tales make On the Waterfront look tame.
The book probes the larger questions not only of how containerization occurred but how it changed global commerce. Shipping containers changed the nature of where things are made and how countries trade as it drove the price of international shipping way down. Containerization condensed ports and de-emphasized the need for manufacturers and commodities to be close to ports. It drove ports in New York out of business and created enormous demand for other areas like Elizabeth, NJ and Houston. Containerization allowed incomplete products to be shipped and development of just-in-tine production by Toyota.
The book left me asking haunting questions like whether September 11th could have occurred without containerization. After all, without the container would the World Trade Center have even been developed on the old port land in Manhattan? Without it, those two buildings would not have been built or destroyed. Shipping containers absolutely changed the world, especially from a business and consumer standpoint. All the clothes we wear from Vietnam and China, the commodities from India, the electronics from Japan would not be possible as we know them without the greatest development in international shipping since the invention of the steamship.