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

Marc Levinson

Princeton University Press 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
The Box begins in 1956 with a vignette of a crane in Newark, New Jersey lifting 58 aluminium truck bodies onto the refitted tanker Ideal-X, but otherwise its opening chapter "The World the Box Made" is a general overview of how shipping containers work and their impact on transport costs. The chapters that follow take up a number of different strands in the history of container shipping, in labour history, in entrepreneurial and corporate innovation and finance, in economic geography and in economic history.

"Gridlock on the Docks" describes the situation on the docks before containerization and automation: labour was expensive and capital cheap, and the way docks worked had led to the development around ports of communities of longshoremen with unique cultures and strong labour solidarity. This strand is picked up later in "Union Disunion", which focuses on labour relations in the United States, and in particular how the unions on the East and West Coasts managed, in different ways, to capture some of the gains from containerization. Both eventually negotiated agreements that gave shippers freedom to innovate, in return for wage guarantees and retirement provisions for existing union members.

"The Trucker" describes Malcolm McLean's origins in the trucking business and his move into shipping, down to the setting up of Sea-Land and its "meeting a schedule of one weekly sailing in each direction between Newark and Houston". This involved struggles with the Interstate Commerce Commission, which among other things prohibited a truck company from owning a shipping line, and considerable financial and legal engineering. (McLean's story is followed through later chapters, but never takes over: The Box is not a biography and Levinson, while he highlights McLean's achievements, is not a follower of the cult of the entrepreneur.) "The System" then describes further technical innovation, the growth of Sea-Land and its acquisition of routes to Puerto Rico, and the different (more cerebral and planned) approach to containerization taken on the West Coast and in Hawaii by Weldon, working for the Matson Navigation Company.

"Takeoff" continues Sea-Land and McLean's story, with more financial engineering and further growth. His vision was of an integrated business moving freight, "but with the railroads, he lacked the power to turn his vision into reality. ... They were content to leave the land side of the new container shipping business to trucks." And "Vietnam" explains how Sea-Land won the contract to provide shipping to Vietnam for the US military; the desire to fill containers for the return journey helped spur Japanese containerization.

"The Battle for New York's Port" describes how the New York Port Authority saw the future and committed to building container ports at Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey (which played a key role in McLean's success). In contrast the antiquated piers in Brooklyn and Manhattan, connected to railways only by lightering carriages across the harbour and with congested truck access routes, were doomed; with them went a swathe of local manufacturing. This theme is picked up later in "Ports in a Storm", which looks at the effects of containerization on some of the world's ports. In some cases this was dictated by geography (the end of London's Docks, the rise of Rotterdam) and in other cases by first-mover advantage (Oakland and Felixstowe became huge container ports largely by luck). Containerization also played a central role in the prosperity of Singapore and Hong Kong (which have only just been passed by Shanghai and Shenzhen as the world's busiest container ports).

"Setting the Standard" describes how standards for container sizes and weights and interlocking systems were set. This involved the United States Marine Administration (Marad), the American Standards Association (its Materials Handling Sectional Committee 5, or MH-5), and the International Standards Organization, as well as a variety of corporate interests. "By 1970, the International Standards Organization prepared to publish the first full draft of its painstakingly negotiated standards ... In hindsight, the process can be faulted in almost every particular. ... [but]... International container shipping could now become a reality."

"Boom and Bust" continues the history of container shipping through to the late 1970s: the second generation of containerships, problems of overcapacity and attempts at rate-setting, and external shocks. The oil crisis devastated the shipping industry, especially companies that had invested in fast, fuel-guzzling ships. "The Bigness Complex" describes bigger companies, bigger ships, bigger networks, bigger ports, attempts at round-the-world routes — and the failure of McLean's new company. "By 1986, the year of U.S. Lines' collapse, ports, transportation companies, and shippers around the world had invested $76 billion in order to carry freight in containers. Another $130 billion of outlays was forecast ... on even bigger ships, ports that could turn a vessel inside of twelve hours, cranes that could move more than one box per minute."

"The Shippers' Revenge" describes how the eventual deregulation of U.S. trucks and trains and the Shipping Act of 1984 tilted the balance back towards shippers, allowing them to negotiate lower rates: "the magnitude of the saving to shippers and consumers cannot be calculated, but it was extremely large". And the final chapter, "Just in Time", picks up the theme of delayed effects from innovation. Here Levinson argues that it was not until the mid 1980s — after thirty years — that the full effects of containerization (and associated changes in logistics) on global manufacturing were felt.

The Box covers a broad variety of material, but has enough of a common core to make a coherent book. I read it through and probably enjoyed most the chapters on topics I knew the least about, but readers can easily skip some, if (say) they have no interest in labour history or standards-setting.

December 2015

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%T The Box
%S How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
%A Levinson, Marc
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2006
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691136400
%P 376pp