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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the…
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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World… (edition 2008)

by Marc Levinson

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4221425,093 (3.85)15
dlevinson's review
The Box by Marc Levinson (no relation, despite the fact he too writes books on transportation) is a new book on the history of container shipping. It is a fascinating account of this method of shipping's birth in multiple places, but primarily fostered by Malcom McLean, through its growth and expansion, driving the evolution of both the ships that containers sail on as well as the ports at which they are transferred.

The book covers topics ranging from labor union issues with automation, the politics of New York as container shipping moved to New Jersey, through the politics of competing standard setting processes that determined the size of containers, and the Vietnam War as the military turned to standardized containers to untangle the shipping mess found in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

It is an exceedingly well-written book that I would recommend to anyone interested in history of technology, transportation, economics, or 20th century American history. It is well researched, with over 85 pages of notes and references (for 278 pages of text).

The book, penned by an economist, (in fact, by a writer for The Economist) clearly points out the tradeoffs between fixed and variable costs of moving to this incredibly capital intensive mode, and of the increasing scale of container ships and ports.

The conflicts between port uses and other land uses were not brought out as much as it might have been, though the location of new container ports at new sites far from old city centers is an indicator that price of land, as well as institutional legacy, are important costs that central cities impose on trade.

-- dml ( )
4 vote dlevinson | Jan 8, 2009 |
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When I shipped my car from Northern California to Guam in 1968 it went on the deck of a ship where it got concrete drooled on it. My motorcycle returned from Okinawa in 1972 on a palette, I believe within a container and without damage. The intermodal container was getting a real footing in the shipping industry at that time as Malcom McClean developed Cam Ranh Bay to supply Americans in Vietnam. [The Box] by [[Marc Levinson]] tells that story and the follow up into this millennium.

Throughout the world longshoreman and others, like the Vietnamese generals who would not let containers into the port of Saigon because they couldn't plunder them, supplemented their income stealing from breakbulk cargo. Shipping is now reliable, reasonably priced, and on schedule with containers when it just wasn't before their widespread adoption. Globalization can happen because of these new efficiencies.

Mr. Levinson has written what I think is an interesting and even usually lively book of non-fiction. Some of the labor history seemed dry to me, but might not be to an economist; it was at least necessary. I would have liked a few maps and drawings. I would have liked to know more about freight consolidators away from the ports. I would have liked to have heard more about the intermodal interface. I would have liked to learn about how rail yards move and load containers. And a few other things. But the book was still rich with the tale, and I'm glad to have spent a few days with it. ( )
1 vote Mr.Durick | Oct 11, 2013 |
Useful and thorough, Levinson has obviously read everything on the subject.
The writing is dense and hard to follow at times, and the lack of an overall
economic view of containers is noteworthy. He has a few comments but clearly containerization reduced the cost of trade by 90%-95% and led to the globalized economy we now have. Very good on McLean and the origins of the industry. Should be read in conjunction with Sharpsteen's The Docks which focuses on one port and its current activities. ( )
  annbury | Apr 15, 2013 |
Call this an examination of how the right innovation at the right time can have a catalytic impact, as a cadre of determined businessman (most notably one Malcom McLean of the United States) sought to wring profits from a stagnant industry and helped to unleash a revolution. The question is unanswerable whether the box begot globalization or whether globalization would have called forth some comparable innovation, but it is certainly now the symbol of the global world economic order. If Levinson does nothing else he reminds one of the deep inefficiencies represented by the world of manually-loaded tramp steamers, the stagnant communities that served the industry, and the out-date regulations that constrained trade. While one can denounce the spirit of deregulation now run rampant, it's good to be reminded that this spirit had real justification a generation ago. The question that Levinson can't answer is whether this revolution has so refined itself that it is now set for its own unforeseen systemic failure. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jun 27, 2012 |
per WSJ 4/12/06
  namfos | Sep 8, 2011 |
On seeing this book my wife exclaimed “I can’t believe you bought a book about shipping containers!” - which, translated, meant “I can believe you bought a book about shipping containers, and I still wonder daily how it is that we ended up together.” The reason I bought it, of course, is that it sounded like a fascinating and very readable history of the development of container shipping, and the effect this has had on the global economy. Thankfully I was right - it is both fascinating and very readable.

The central thesis is that container shipping - while not in itself a particularly mind-blowing idea - was a necessary precondition for globalisation. The rise of containerised freight brought dramatic increases in efficiency and incredible decreases in cost, but it did a lot more than just change the cost of shipping something from point A to point B. Containerisation resulted in a standard unit of bulk freight, and the means of seamlessly transitioning freight between different modes of transportation. With this system in place it becomes possible for a shipper to specify the destination of a container and not have to worry too much about how it gets there. As hard as it is for many of us to imagine these days, this was not always the case.

Much of the book deals with the challenges faced in making containerisation a reality. Despite being a simple idea, there was enormous resistance to begin with. Obstacles included overbearing government regulation on freight of all types, the total dominance of international shipping cartels, and the degree to which labour unions consisting of tens of thousands of dockworkers controlled ports around the world.

However, container shipping turned out to be a transformative technology - with effects far in excess of those predicted by the people who fought to make it a reality. Once the idea was embraced it took force with astonishing rapidity, transforming the waterfronts and economies of many cities around the world and destroying tens of thousands of waterfront labour jobs in the process.

The most important effects had little to do with shipping itself - it turned out that containerised freight provided a massive increase in flexibility, enabling brand new approaches to production and leading to boom in global trade.

The only thing the book is missing is a chapter on the use being made now of containers for purposes other than freight - for example as a means of deploying self-contained datacenters, or as a basic structural element for low-cost modular architecture.

I really enjoyed this book, and found it an excellent treatment of a subject that - let’s be honest - sounds slightly dull. Much of the story focuses on Malcom McLean - a US trucker whose intuitive grasp of the freight business lead him to create the first dedicated container shipping service. This focus helps give the book a biographical narrative which ties it all together very well, and while the book goes into much more detail about circumstances in the US it manages to avoid the trap of pretending that the rest of the world doesn’t exist.

Heartily recommended! ( )
15 vote felius | Apr 5, 2010 |
A well-disciplined history of the shipping container that is written with such engaging style that it transcends its subject. The focus of the history is rather too heavily US-centric for a full history but the writer does not disregard developments in Asia and Europe. ( )
1 vote TheoClarke | Nov 25, 2009 |
경제,비즈니스
  leese | Nov 23, 2009 |
The Box by Marc Levinson (no relation, despite the fact he too writes books on transportation) is a new book on the history of container shipping. It is a fascinating account of this method of shipping's birth in multiple places, but primarily fostered by Malcom McLean, through its growth and expansion, driving the evolution of both the ships that containers sail on as well as the ports at which they are transferred.

The book covers topics ranging from labor union issues with automation, the politics of New York as container shipping moved to New Jersey, through the politics of competing standard setting processes that determined the size of containers, and the Vietnam War as the military turned to standardized containers to untangle the shipping mess found in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

It is an exceedingly well-written book that I would recommend to anyone interested in history of technology, transportation, economics, or 20th century American history. It is well researched, with over 85 pages of notes and references (for 278 pages of text).

The book, penned by an economist, (in fact, by a writer for The Economist) clearly points out the tradeoffs between fixed and variable costs of moving to this incredibly capital intensive mode, and of the increasing scale of container ships and ports.

The conflicts between port uses and other land uses were not brought out as much as it might have been, though the location of new container ports at new sites far from old city centers is an indicator that price of land, as well as institutional legacy, are important costs that central cities impose on trade.

-- dml ( )
4 vote dlevinson | Jan 8, 2009 |
Astonishing. Read it and be amazed how a humble (!) box has changed the world. ( )
  hmib | Nov 4, 2008 |
A brilliant look at how logistics standardization in the form of containers has revolutionized the transportation business and the modern world. Levinson is an amazing guide to the strange lost world a few decades past where prices were administered, competition regulated, and cozy cartels ruled. Ports were harbours of inefficiency and dens of thieves. Hayek's dedication to the socialists of all parties rings true when rhetorics advocated free markets and practice stifled competition.

Having learned to squeeze money out of the trucking business, one man, Malcom McLean, saw the opportunity to profit from the mess and improve efficiency. In acts of daring, financial acumen and brinkmanship, McLean established a container shipping business. Just as in any revolution, he himself was overtaken by history. One of the joys of Levinson's book is that he shows changes to be both evolutionary and revolutionary - with plenty of evolutionary dead ends (McLean's non-standard 35 ft. container), ship scale arms races and booms and busts. The container changed the whole transportation infrastructure - making and breaking communities. Levinson tells the story of the Port Authority of New York on the East Coast, Oakland and Seattle on the West Coast and glimpses at Rotterdam and Singapore. The 278 page book is over much too soon and there remain many stories to be told, eg I would have liked to read a chapter about the IT revolution of warehouse and shipping management as well as a pointer to GPS and tracking systems. Curiously for a personalized economic history, the book features not a single illustration. ( )
5 vote jcbrunner | Jun 23, 2007 |
The McDonaldization of Freight: Containerization and the New Dynamics of Trade Flows
While economic integration and its influence in trade and financial flows have long been objects of research and analysis, there seems to be a remarkable lack of accessible studies pertaining to certain key components of the global economy. Levinson’s absorbing study of containerization sheds new light on the complexities of a system whose broad framework is well known to businesspeople and economists, but is essentially an undistinguished, unremarkable part of the relentless march towards global economic ‘entente’. By forcing an otherwise implausibly intimate interaction amongst shipping lines, trucking firms, and railroads, containerization of freight transport and the consequent intermodalism in moving goods resulted in a sharp drop in freight costs, which in turn encouraged the emergence of highly extended supply chains, allowed ambitious companies to access global markets, and facilitated an extraordinary upsurge in trade.

In all of the industrial shifts of the twentieth century, there is nothing quite so affecting as the story of containerization. The rise of the container, a “soulless” means of conveyance with “all the romance of a tin can”, was not at all preordained, despite the inescapable logic of transporting cargo through such means. The story of the emergence of container transport as a formidable enabler of economic activity is in large part also the story of Malcom McLean, a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina who saw containerization’s potential to unlock tremendous economic value. McLean discerned, ahead of everyone else, that the business of shipping was, first and foremost, all about moving cargo. Armed with this insight, and motivated by the prospect of underpricing his competition in the trucking business, McLean thought of putting truck trailers aboard cargo ships plying US coastal routes. He then proceeded to acquire a shipping company, Waterman Steamship Corporation, whose subsidiary, Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation, operated four ships plying the Boston-Houston route. (The acquisition itself was an interesting affair; Walter Wriston, who headed Citibank from 1967 to 1984 and who was familiar with the deal, later attested, “[i]n a sense, Waterman was the first LBO.”) Under McLean’s stewardship, Pan-Atlantic, which was rechristened Sea-Land, launched the first container-carrying ship, the SS Ideal-X, in 1956. In its maiden voyage as a container vessel, the Ideal-X carried 58 aluminum boxes from Newark to Houston. Analysis of the cost of loading and haulage later showed that transporting containerized cargo aboard the Ideal-X cost 15.8 cents per ton, a far cry from the cost of loading breakbulk cargo which amounted to $5.83 per ton in 1956.

By the late 1950s, containerization started to take off, with several firms and the US Army participating in the action. But the plethora of container dimensions made true intermodalism impossible: a study conducted in 1959 revealed that nearly three-fourths of privately held container stock in the US measured eight feet or less at the base, while the rest were more than eight feet in width. Setting a container standardization scheme fell under the purview of the US Maritime Administration (Marad), which granted shipbuilding subsidies. Marad was anxious to ensure that ships built using Marad-granted funds yielded profits; if the ships turned out to be dismal business failures, the agency could be forced to foreclose on vessels that would be unable to carry other firms’ containers. Marad therefore had a significant stake in standardizing container sizes and capabilities. After a lot of wheeling and dealing amongst and within Marad, the American Standards Organization, the International Standards Organization and other interested parties, it was decreed in 1964 that the ‘standard’ container would be eight feet in height and width and would have a length of 10, 20, 30, or 40 feet. But further horse-trading ensued, embroiling both the US Congress and Senate, with shipbuilding subsidies for both Sea-Land and its competitor Matson at stake. By 1970, the standardization issue was more or less ironed out.

The war in Vietnam proved to be a momentous catalyst in containerization. From 1965 to 1967, the logistical disarray in Vietnam’s antediluvian ports was so great as to require the attention of luminaries such as US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who spent much of his time during a visit to Vietnam addressing port-related issues, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who discussed port problems with the prime minister of South Vietnam. The rapid military buildup necessitated a quantum leap in addressing the requirements of the in-country troops. The burden of convincing the armed forces to employ containerization fell to McLean. His determination led to Sea-Land winning a contract in March 1967 to operate a shipping service between the US West Coast and Vietnam ports. By the end of 1968, one-fifth of military cargo in the Pacific has been containerized. Sea-Land’s rapid success in transforming port services in Vietnam in such a short period of time allowed the US Army to declare in 1967 that “[t]he port congestion problem was solved.” In 1970, an analyst observed that the armed forces could have saved $882 million between 1965 and 1968 had it implemented containerization from the very beginning of the troop buildup. As the benefits of cargo unitization through containerization became apparent to the military, the box soon became central to the US armed forces’ logistical needs.

If one supposes that in 1965, a consultant correctly predicted that total containerized trade volume would reach a certain level in 1995, no consultant or analyst, however erudite, resourceful, and imaginative he or she might have been, would have set that figure in the full, illuminating context of a $35 trillion global economy, growing at an annual rate in excess of 3.5% and facilitating export-led growth. As Levinson asserts, “the extremely sharp drop in freight costs played a major role in increasing the integration of the global economy.” By one estimate, freight rates from Asia to North America had collapsed by as much as 40-60% due to containerization. Although Levinson is careful to note that containerization by itself did not form the foundation of global economic integration, the book betrays his ebullience about the role of the box in shaping the world. While Levinson’s thesis, being a thematic exploration of the history of containerization, leaves some gaps in explaining the current dynamics of container transport, “The Box” does deepen our understanding and appreciation of global trade flows. ( )
2 vote melvinsico | Mar 31, 2007 |
Fascinating! You may think it's too dry in parts, but really shows how this innovation in shipping made globalization possible. Without it -- no globalization. So, given the oil crisis, if/when fuel becomes too expensive to keep up this massive shipping scheme -- byebye globalization.
  abuannie | Mar 5, 2007 |
A fascinating book covering the innovation of the shipping container and its adoption from the 1960s through the 1980s. This book is noteworthy for its coverage not only of the shipping container technology, but for its coverage of the entire system of goods transportation and the complex inter-relationships between technology innovation, transport modalities and their relative efficiency (cost), government regulation, and labor relations. ( )
  rw_flyer | Mar 4, 2007 |
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