The Box (Second Edition) by Marc Levinson

I probably would have appreciated a more pop-history version of this “history of containerization”, which makes the (prolonged) “argument that tumbling transport costs were critical in opening the way to what we now call globalization,” but I nevertheless learned a lot about shipping and shipping containers and ports and freight costs.

Levinson sets the scene, early in the book, by talking about ports in the US in the 1950s, before the advent of containers. A city like New York had a lot of docks, with warehouses and/or factories near those docks, to make it easier to get goods onto boats. Items coming from near or far “would be loaded piece by piece on a truck or railcar,” which delivered the stuff to the docks, where everything then had to be “unloaded separately, recorded on a tally sheet, and carried to storage” in a dockside warehouse called a transit shed. I love this description of how a scene at the docks might have looked: “There might be steel drums of cleaning compound and beef tallow alongside 440-pound bales of cotton and animal skins. Borax in sacks so heavy it took two men to lift them, loose pieces of lumber, baskets of freshly picked oranges, barrels of olives, and coils of steel wire might all be part of the same load of “mixed cargo,” waiting on the dock amid a tangle of ropes and cables, as lift trucks and handcarts darted back and forth.” Getting a boat loaded took a lot of heavy lifting by a lot of longshoremen, and it took a lot of time: all that mixed cargo of different shapes and sizes had to be packed into a boat’s holds, which weren’t uniform in size, in a way that made good use of the space without damaging the freight. And unloading a boat was the same difficulty in reverse: a lot of the cost and time involved in shipping things by boat was due to the loading and unloading process.

For multiple reasons (including union opposition, government regulations related to “commodity-based” shipping rates for railways, and a lack of standardization), early attempts at containerization in the US and Europe didn’t fully take hold: and even when railways tried using containers, those containers weren’t particularly efficient to transport on ships that weren’t designed for them. Enter Malcom McLean, “a self-made trucking magnate” who had an idea in 1953: “Rather than driving down crowded coastal highways, why not just put truck trailers on ships that could ferry them up and down the coast?” (This was also related to the regulatory landscape: the Interstate Commerce Commission “allowed ship rates to be well below rail and truck rates to compensate for slower service.”) After some safety checks (which involved a boat loaded with two containers going “back and forth between Newark and Houston, the Coast Guard checking the load after each voyage”) McLean’s first containership eventually set sail in 1956.

From there, we learn about how McLean and others kept on building bigger and bigger boats, which required bigger/deeper/more modern ports, with bigger and faster cranes to load and unload the boats more efficiently. We also learn about the longshoremen’s unions on the East Coast and the West Coast and their objections to containerization (which would clearly mean a loss of jobs for longshoremen) and the way that some ports modernized and others were left behind. There are lots of facts and figures, some of which are more memorable than others: I learned that as of 2015 there were “ships so large that a single one could carry 144 million bottles of wine.” There’s also a chapter about standardization of container size (and other aspects of container design), a chapter about the US Army and containers during the Vietnam War, and a chapter about just-in-time manufacturing and how it’s enabled by a reliable global supply chain, which is in turn enabled, in part, by containers. If that sounds like a lot, it is: and I’m not even getting into some of the more detailed economic stuff about shipping rates and deregulation and the volume of container traffic from decade to decade. I don’t know how much of this I’ll retain, but I am definitely currently more knowledgeable about the history of containerization than I was a week ago, and am looking forward to discussing this book in nonfiction book club tomorrow.






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