Authors: Marc Levinson
How the Shipping Container
Made the World Smaller and the
World Economy Bigger
With a new preface by the author
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
PRINCETON AND OXFORD
Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press
Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street,
Princeton, New Jersey 08540
In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press,
3 Market Place, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1SY
All Rights Reserved
Ninth printing, and first paperback printing, with a new preface by the author, 2008
Paperback ISBN: 978–0-691–13640-0
The Library of Congress has cataloged the cloth edition of this book as follows
The box: how the shipping container made the world smaller and
the world economy bigger/Marc Levinson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978–0-691–12324-0 (hardcover: alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0–691-12324–1 (hardcover)
1. Containerization—History. 2. McLean, Malcolm Purcell, 1913–2001. I. Title.
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Janson text with Clarendon Family Display
Printed on acid-free paper. ∞
Printed in the United States of America
Aaron, Rebecca, and Deborah
riting a book
is usually a solitary venture, but
was a more private project than most. This was not entirely my choice. Early on in my work, when acquaintances would ask what I’d been doing, I would proudly tell them I was writing a history of the shipping container. The result of this disclosure was invariably stunned silence, as my interlocutors tried to think of something to say about a boring metal box. Eventually, I stopped talking about the book altogether, simply to avoid the embarrassment that every mention of the topic would bring.
The response to the book’s publication in the spring of 2006, then, caught me by surprise. I knew that the history of containerization would show itself to be a far more absorbing topic than readers could imagine, and I figured that economists and logistics specialists might be intrigued by my argument that tumbling transport costs were critical in opening the way to what we now call globalization. I had not the slightest clue, however, that the container was on its way to becoming something trendy. Then the invitations began to arrive. In New York, I shared a platform with architects using con tainers to design office buildings and apartments. In Genoa, I spoke alongside an entrepreneur who turned containers into temporary art galleries, while in Santa Barbara, California, the local museum joined forces with a university to promote a series of public events on ramifications of the container that I had never considered. The by millions of boxes with undetermined contents; the environmental damage caused by massive movement of cargo: all of these issues came to the fore in reviews and critical articles.
Then business executives weighed in. A leading computer manufacturer embraced
as a metaphor for modular products, announcing a “data center in a box.” A major oil company drew insights from the container that helped it cut the cost of exploration in the Canadian Arctic. Several consulting firms applied lessons from containerization to a variety of business problems having nothing to do with freight transportation. A software house developed the notion of a computer system that passed “containerized” pieces of data from one location to the next, an extension of containerization well beyond any I had imagined.
Academics drew on
to open some new lines of intellectual inquiry. There has been, as I discovered in the course of my research, very little serious study of the container and its consequences, except in the area of labor relations. That neglect is partly due to lack of data:
lays out the obstacles to developing reliable estimates of how the container has changed transport costs since the 1950s. The reluctance of academics to cross traditional boundaries also has inhibited exploration of the container’s impact. One expert on logistics, for example, was quite familiar with containerships but told me he had never considered the container’s impact on shore. Mainly, however, I think academics have ignored the container be cause it seems so prosaic. A noted economic historian, a reader informed me, had long proclaimed to students that while the container was an important development, it was too simple to be worth much study. The book may at least have knocked down that last objection. It seems to have provided fodder for a variety of conferences and symposia, stimulating a new intellectual dialogue about the role of transportation in economic change.
The media have undertaken a similar reconsideration. Since the late 1980s, commentators have filled columns and airwaves with glib chatter about globalization, as if it were merely a matter of bits and bytes and corporate cost-cutting. Since
appeared, however, many news stories and articles have acknowledged that, digital communication notwithstanding, the integration of the world economy depends less on call centers and trans-Pacific exports of technical services than on the ability to move goods cheaply from here to there.
, I hope, has contributed to public understanding that inadequate port, road, and rail infrastructure can cause economic harm by raising the cost of moving freight.
Many aspects of the response to
were startling, but perhaps the most unexpected concerns a widespread stereotype about innovation. In his later years, Malcom McLean, the former trucker whose audacious scheme to create the first containership line is re counted in
, was frequently asked how he came up with the idea of the container. He responded with a tale about how, after spending hours in late 1937 queuing at a Jersey City pier to unload his truck, he realized that it would be quicker simply to hoist the entire truck body on board. From this incident, we are meant to believe, came his decision eighteen years later to buy a war-surplus tanker and equip it to carry 33-foot-long containers.
The story of this “Aha!” moment does not appear in
,because I believe the event never occurred. There is certainly no contemporaneous evidence for it. I suspect that the story of McLean’s stroke of genius took on a life of its own as, decades later, well-meaning people asked McLean where the container came from. As I show in
, ship lines and railroads had been experimenting with containers for half a century before Malcom McLean’s trip to Jersey City, and containers were already in wide use in North America and Europe when McLean’s first ship set sail in 1956.
Malcom McLean’s real contribution to the development of containerization, in my view, had to do not with a metal box or a ship, but with a managerial insight. McLean understood that transport companies’ true business was moving freight rather than operating ships or trains. That understanding helped his version of containerization succeed where so many others had failed. To my consternation, though, I quickly learned that many people quite fancy the tale of McLean’s dockside epiphany. The idea of a single moment of inspiration, of the apple landing on young Isaac Newton’s head, stirs the soul, even if it turns out to be apocryphal. In contrast, the idea that innovation occurs in fits and starts, with one person adapting a concept already in use and another figuring out how to make a profit from it, has little appeal. The world likes heroes, even if the worshipful story of one person’s heroic effort is rarely an accurate representation of the complex path of technological advance.
How innovation really works is certainly one of the lessons of
, but for me there is another that looms even larger: the role of unintended consequences. Economists, myself included, are in the business of predicting events; we like to think that we can analyze what has happened and draw insight into what will occur in the days to come. Business school students take a similar approach, learning to apply quantitative analysis to historical data in order to draw conclusions about the future. In the business world, this way of looking at the world through a spreadsheet is treated as modern management thinking. It’s the bread and butter of some of the world’s most famous, and expensive, consulting firms.
The story of containerization attests to the limits of this sort of rational analysis, for the developments recounted in
turned out not at all as expected. Containerization, after all, began as a means of shaving a few dollars off the cost of sending Malcom McLean’s trucks between New York and North Carolina. At best, it was regarded as a minor innovation, “an expedient,” as one leading naval architect opined in 1958. Perhaps, the experts thought, containers might capture a small share of America’s declining coastal shipping business. They were deemed impractical for most types of cargo and for shipments to distant places, such as Asia.
Absolutely no one anticipated that containerization would open the way to vast changes in where and how goods are manufactured, that it would provide a major impetus to transport deregulation, or that it would help integrate East Asia into a world economy that previously had centered on the North Atlantic. That containerization would eliminate the jobs of dockworkers was clear from the start, but no one imagined that it would cause massive job loss among workers in manufacturing and wholesaling whose employment had long been tied to the presence of nearby docks. Political leaders, trade unionists, and corporate executives made costly mistakes because they failed to apprehend the container’s influence. U.S. railroads fought containerization tooth and nail in the 1960s and 1970s, convinced that it would destroy their traditional boxcar business, never imagining that early in the twenty-first century they would be carrying 12 million containers every year. Many shipping magnates—including, eventually, McLean himself—led their ship lines to failure by misjudging how the container business would develop. And certainly, no one in the early days of container shipping foresaw that this American-born industry would come to be dominated by European and Asian firms, as the U.S.-flag ship lines, burdened by a legacy of protected markets and heavy regulation, proved unable to compete in a fast-changing world.
And, of course, no one involved with the container’s development imagined that metal boxes would come to be regarded as a major security threat. Improved security, ironically, was originally one of the container’s big selling points: cargo packed inside a locked container was far less susceptible to theft and damage than cargo handled loose. Ship lines and border-control officials were taken by surprise in the 1980s, when smugglers figured out that the relative secrecy, anonymity, and reliability of container shipping made it ideal for transporting drugs and undocumented migrants as well. In those days, enclosing container yards with fences and locked gates was thought adequate to solve the problem.
Two decades later, evaluating potential threats after a series of devastating attacks, antiterrorism experts hit upon the possibility that terrorists might cripple world trade by exploding radioactive weapons secreted in containers. The seriousness of that threat was impossible to evaluate, although experience has made clear that terrorists bent on wreaking large-scale devastation can do so with readily available materials—ammonium nitrate fertilizer, propane, explosives embedded with nails—without going to the trouble of building a “dirty bomb.” Nonetheless, containers suddenly came into public consciousness as an urgent threat, one that no government anywhere was equipped to confront. A large-scale spending program inevitably followed, with radiation detectors appearing at port gates and port workers mandated to wear supposedly tamper-proof identity cards. Whether these efforts have improved security remains unclear; tests using satellites to track container shipments from origin to destination have not been promising. The frenetic attempt to bolster security at the ports, however, may have created a risk that may be even more difficult to address: the risk that precipitous government orders to detain vessels or close ports in the face of a real or imagined terrorist action could cause grave damage to economies all around the world.
The history of the shipping container is humbling. Careful planning and thorough analysis have their place, but they provide little guidance in the face of abrupt changes that alter an industry’s very fundamentals. Flexibility is a virtue in such a situation. Resistance can be a vice, but so can a rush to action. In this kind of situation, “expect the unexpected” may be as good a motto as any.
Just as no one in the container’s early years dreamed that the world’s ports would soon be handling the arrival of one-and-a-half million 40-foot containers every week, so, too, did no one conceive that steel shipping containers could be turned into houses and sculptures or that abandoned containers would become a serious nuisance. That simple metal box was what we today label a disruptive technology. Even now, more than half a century after it came into use, it continues to affect our world in unexpected ways.