This was a book that I had seen reviewed widely, and did not think I needed to read because it seemed to contain one simple idea. I was wrong. The Box is about much more than the invention of the shipping container. It is about a revolution in transportation brought on by standardization, and the wide-ranging economic effects of this change.
Before the advent of shipping containers, cargo (which could be in a bag or box of any size or even loose) was loaded and unloaded by longshoremen. This was a labor intensive process. A ship that took ten days to travel from New York to Germany could take four days to unload–nearly one-third of the entire transit time, not counting loading. Productiviy of longshoremen decreased during the first half of the twentieth century.
The work of longshoremen was also rife with corruption. Because it was ad hoc labor, workers were not guaranteed any fixed about of labor or pay. This led foremen, who were responsible for choosing which laborers worked that day, to take bribes. Given this informal labor structure, as much as ten percent of valuable commodities such as coffee might be “lost” after arriving in port.
Enter Malcom Mclean. McLean was a savvy businessman who entered the transportation industry in 1935. One efficiency he found was securing routes that allowed his drivers to carry loads in both directions. After WWII, he found that he could buy surplus ships that were relatively inexpensive. He began to consider whether it would be worthwhile to drive trucks onto ships and ferry them up the east coast. The limiting factor in that idea was that the trucks’ cabs and wheels would take up a large amount of space–but what if you could get rid of all the unnecessary parts of the truck?
Shipping containers, then, are not the result of a single lightbulb moment but of small incremental improvements to both technology (containers, trucks, ships, and cranes) and processes (loading, unloading).
Containers are also a case of simultaneous invention. Matson Navigation shipped Hawaiian produce to the mainland, and returned with small packages from grocers requested by customers in Hawaii. This led to a series of loading and unloadings, and goods would be unloaded from the ship in Hawaii and had to be sorted by destination before being loaded onto trucks. (The key difference between Matson’s containers and McLean’s was that Matson’s were shorter, being designed primarily for use in California rather than the U.S. East Coast.)
As we consider the future of transportation, such as automated long-haul trucking, two elements of Levinson’s account stand out. First, at the time that shipping containers were developed trucking, maritime shipping, and railroads were all regulated as separate industries. This meant that McLean had to fight regulators in three separate industries in order to secure the economic efficiencies of his idea. Second, longshoremen were strongly opposed to automation. However, because lower costs increased the amount of shipping, their pay and benefits actually increased over the second half of the twentieth century.
This is a well-written and thoughtful account that is about so much more than a “box.”