Tuesday, 24 December 2013

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

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

I’ve been writing an article on shipping containers as homes (condensed version: not worth the trouble), and as part of my research I read this book. I admit to having a thing for books about subjects that are almost invisible (salt, pencils, etc.) and I suppose shipping containers are one of those items that has become so ubiquitous as to be given little to no thought any more.

Various efforts had been tried to containerize goods over the years. Shipping had always been an incredibly expensive and time consuming endeavour. The effort to move towards a system of containerization was a tale of starts and stops, successes and setbacks. The system is a juggernaut now, but its implementation was held up by powerful longshoremen unions, the difficulty of determining a definitive size, centralized government control of (ship, train, truck) shipping, the difficulty in handling the containers in ports, fitting them on trains and trucks, etc.

Despite all the hiccups, from the very get go the cost of shipping goods via a container saved such a large ratio of money (both in terms of labour savings, time savings, but also in goods that weren’t being damaged or pilfered) that the writing was on the wall for traditional shipping methods.

In due course, and after much wrangling, sizes were decided on, cranes were standardized, trucks and trains were built to integrate with the containers, ships went from WW2 liberty ships to custom built ships specifically built for containers. Whole new ports were built to handle the ships (London and New York declined, sleepy fishing villages like Felixstowe and Port Elizabeth boomed). Entire economies shifted due to the possibilities containerization opened up. Manufacturing went into precipitous decline in Europe and North America and sky rocketed throughout Asia. A whole segment of the labour market (longshoremen/dock workers) essentially disappeared in a short period of time. With very sophisticated tracking software ever tighter schedules could be adhered to. In time even transcontinental canals will be enlarged to accommodate ever larger container ships. Containers are a perfect example of a disruptive technology.

It is a bit of a dry read, but I got a lot out of it. A history of both business and technology, and of something that I suspect many never give a lot of thought to. If you enjoy stories about entrepreneurs, the story of Malcolm McLean is a classic. From a lad driving a truck, to one of the richest men in the world, he was largely (some would say exclusively) responsible for revolutionizing the shipping industry as we know it.

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