Summer 2009Vol. 4, No. 2

This book review is from TOS Vol. 4, No. 2. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
by Marc Levinson

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, hardback 2006, $24.95; paperback 2008, $16.95; Amazon Kindle edition, $9.99. 376 pp.

Free marketeers reading the news these days cannot help but feel depressed. Media reports would lead us to believe that entrepreneurs are exploiters, that global trade hurts rather than helps people in America—in short, that capitalism has failed and that only the “change” offered us by central planners can alleviate our economic woes. In this climate, Marc Levinson’s book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger provides a welcome respite and intellectual refueling for weary capitalists. It tells a suspenseful story of achievement—replete with many twists and turns and a swashbuckling American hero—that will leave you wanting to run to the nearest container port to admire with newfound appreciation the industrial machinery that impacts almost every part of our daily lives. The Box, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first sailing of a containership christened The Ideal-X, tells the story of how a seemingly mundane thing—a metal box with a wooden floor—managed to fundamentally change the world we live in.

Until the 1960s, shipping had not changed much in decades. Handling cargo was a labor-intensive activity, and transportation costs and times—whether by land or by sea—were huge obstacles to trade, often making transcontinental, let alone global, trade economically unfeasible.

In the 1950s, moving goods by ship was “a hugely complicated project,” involving “millions of people who drove, dragged, or pushed cargo through city streets to or from the piers” (p. 16). Docks were cluttered with every kind of good imaginable, “steel drums of cleaning compound and beef tallow alongside 440-pound bales of cotton and animal skins”—all of which needed to be loaded and unloaded manually by gangs of longshoremen (p. 17). The process of loading and unloading a single ship during a single visit to a port often took weeks and accounted for between 60 and 75 percent of shipping costs. And, given the difficulties inherent and time involved in moving goods housed in a variety of different containers, it was imperative that factories locate close to docks for fast access to raw materials. Transportation costs and long delivery times made long-distance trade challenging and expensive—even before factoring in the heavy regulation that plagued the shipping industry.

Recognizing the great expense and wasted time inherent in shipping practices of the day, two companies—both outsiders to the maritime shipping industry—developed in parallel an alternative system. Malcom McLean, an entrepreneur who grew his trucking company from a single vehicle purchased on credit during the Great Depression to one of the largest in America, bought a marginal East Coast maritime shipping line using “an unprecedented piece of financial and legal engineering” to circumvent regulations that prevented trucking companies from owning ship lines (p. 45). McLean set out to design and build a new shipping system from scratch based on a novel approach to the business: Whereas most shipping executives at the time believed that their business was operating ships, “McLean’s fundamental insight, commonplace today but quite radical in the 1950s, was that the shipping industry’s business was moving cargo” (p. 53, emphasis added).

Within less then two years, McLean and his company, Pan-Atlantic, bootstrapped the first viable container system, in which cargo was loaded into stackable metal and wooden boxes of uniform dimensions, eliminating much of the labor required for and many of the problems inherent in loading ships with goods housed in a variety of containers. Further, “McLean understood that reducing the cost of shipping goods required not just a metal box but an entire new way of handling freight. Every part of the system—ports, ships, cranes, storage facilities, trucks, trains and the operations of the shippers themselves—would have to change. In that understanding, he was years ahead of almost everyone else in the transportation industry” (p. 53). His team of entrepreneurial, fast-moving engineers, managers, and partners designed, among many other things, the 33-foot box (only small steel containers were previously available); developed a quick-release locking system that eliminated the need to chain containers to ships or trucks; built a new trailer chassis to guide containers automatically into place; and put in place large cranes equipped with spreader bars—devices stretching the entire length of a container that enabled crane operators to attach and release hooks at the container’s corner with the flick of a switch, thereby eliminating the need for longshoremen to climb up to each container corner and attach chains manually. And they accomplished all of these things while dealing with skeptical regulators who doubted the safety of containers and were pressured by truck and rail competitors to prohibit the container shipping experiment.

When the first containership sailed on April 24, 1956, McLean’s detailed cost tracking system showed clearly the benefits of the new system: “Loading loose cargo on a medium-sized cargo ship cost $5.83 per ton in 1956. McLean’s experts pegged the cost of loading the Ideal-X at 15.8 cents per ton. With numbers like that, the container seemed to have a future” (p. 52). . . .