The cube that circled the entire globe

The Box
October 13, 2006

The defining characteristic of the world economy is globalisation - the trend towards the integration of markets for goods, services and factors of production across national boundaries.

Telecommunications, economic liberalisation and international standardisation have all made their contribution to the development of the "global village". But, with more than two thirds of world trade carried by sea, it is maritime transport that makes the system work. More than that, rising shipping productivity and declining freight rates over the past three decades have themselves acted as powerful forces for trade growth.

Underpinning and driving what has been a transport revolution is the container-shipping industry - a sophisticated multi-modal global industry built around the simple utilitarian cargo container, the box.

Until the 1960s, the ways in which the goods carried by cargo liners were packed remained much as they had been in the early 20th century. Crates, boxes, bags of various shapes and sizes filled the holds.

Large numbers of port workers were employed in loading and unloading these individual cargo items - a laborious skilled process that meant that as much as half of a ship's time might be spent in port. A further point of inefficiency was the break in the transport process as goods transferred between vessel, warehouse and inland transport mode.

Containerisation has changed all this, and much besides. Cargoes prepacked in the standard-sized box can be handled in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the workforce needed in the past; the same container can carry goods from a producer in one country and ship these, undisturbed, across the oceans to a consumer on the other side of the world; traditional liner ship types have been replaced by the (itself box-like) container ship; container terminals have displaced or transformed established ports, with profound consequences for local communities; worldwide shipping company alliances dominate services.

How did this happen? The early chapters of Marc Levinson's book focus on the pioneering role of the US entrepreneur Malcolm McLean in setting maritime transport on its new course. In 1956, McLean, a leading trucking operator, began a trailer and container-carrying service between Port Elizabeth in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Reflecting the success of this initiative, followed by intercoastal east-to-west services and a link to Puerto Rico, the company renamed itself Sea-Land Service. From 1966, boosted by Vietnam War government contracts, Sea-Land routes extended to East Asia and northern Europe. In the Pacific in 1960, the US company Matson Navigation began a container service to Hawaii.

Levinson traces these early developments in a detailed, generally admiring narrative that also encompasses battles with the Interstate Commerce Commission and conflicts with the dockers' trade unions. He deals in similar detail with the negotiations to establish first national and then international standards for container dimensions - an essential step towards their global application.

The Box relates the story of the first, American, decade of the container with some verve. But, in the longer term, what matters is what happened next. That is, how and why did the container catch on outside the US arena?

Sea-Land's entry into the North Atlantic business, together with the opening of Rotterdam's container shipping terminal, shook up the traditional shipping companies. It was, however, not only the threat of competition but also the productivity gains demonstrated by the US container-shipping companies that stimulated others to follow suit. The box could be filled, or "stuffed" as the jargon had it, away from the waterfront, so it offered a way of evading unionised port labour. But its prime attraction was reduction of port costs through mechanisation of cargo handling. Unions, though swift to appreciate the threat to their members, were ultimately unable to protect their jobs.

Despite the considerable costs of investing in the containers themselves, in acquiring new types of vessels and in providing new port infrastructure, containerisation allowed the liner business to benefit from growth in world trade.

From its start on the North Atlantic, by the late 1960s the new technology had spread to Japan and the trans-Pacific routes, fuelling a shipbuilding boom. Thereafter, everything was not straightforward. Although containerised vessels rapidly dominated the market, profits proved hard to come by, and this resulted in some spectacular company collapses in the 1970s and 1980s. Structural reorganisation, which led in the 1990s to grand inter-continental alliances of operators, became a constant feature of what was by now itself a globalised industry.

Discussion of these more recent developments demands an international scope. Levinson attempts this, though with some unevenness of coverage, but his largely US source material keeps the focus on the experience of that country. In this respect, The Box compares poorly with Frank Broeze's recent full-length study, The Globalisation of the Oceans: Containerisation from the 1950s to the Present (International Maritime Economic History Association, 2002).

Although Levinson claims in his introduction that there has previously been "no general history of the container", in fact Broeze's investigation covers much the same territory and succeeds better in probing the many-faceted dimensions of the container phenomenon.

That said, The Box provides a lively, narrative introduction to the history of this ubiquitous object and its role in shaping our world.

Sarah Palmer is director, Greenwich Maritime Institute, Greenwich University.

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

Author - Marc Levinson
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 392
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 691 12324 1

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