Globalization In A Can

THE BOX

How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

By Marc Levinson

Princeton University -- 376pp -- $24.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good An engaging tale of how the shipping container helped usher in globalization.

The Bad At times, the book seems disconnected from current developments.

The Bottom Line A strong argument that without the box, the global economy might not exist today.

Last year the nation's ports took in a record $1.21 trillion in goods from countries outside North America. That is double the total of just a dozen years ago and 80 times more than the value of all imports in 1960. The upsurge is due in part to such hashed-over trends as the advance of capitalism in the developing world and technology that makes global communications a snap. But international trade also owes its exponential growth to something utterly ordinary and overlooked, says author Marc Levinson: the metal shipping container.

Levinson's The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger makes a strong argument. "The standard container," notes Levinson, a former editor at Newsweek and The Economist, "has all the romance of a tin can," but it made shipping cheap and thus helped engineer outsourcing. It's why we can stock store shelves with stuff made an ocean away only a few weeks earlier. Levinson also spins yarns of the men who fought to retain the old On the Waterfront ways and of those who made the box ubiquitous. Of particular note is his chronicle of Malcom P. McLean, a North Carolina truck driver who built a freight empire and then, 50 years ago, gambled everything to create the first company with containerized ships.

Oddly, though, The Box at times seems disconnected from this new world. Tables about shipping costs in the 1950s? They're here. But discussions of immigrant- or weapons-smuggling past port security in uninspected containers? Levinson allots such topics only a few sentences in the book's final pages. Moreover, the gaping U.S. trade deficit -- perhaps the container's most troubling legacy -- is entirely ignored. If you're looking for a back story on the development of the global economy, however, this is the book.

It's hard to imagine how merchandise moved across the seas before it came packed in neat stacks of boxes. To recall that time, Levinson details one 1954 transatlantic journey by the U.S. merchant freighter The Warrior. It took a gang of richly paid longshoremen six days to tote 194,582 items -- steel drums of oil, loose lumber, 220-pound bags of sugar -- from portside warehouses and then wedge these goods into the vessel. At the other end, a second gang of laborers needed four round-the-clock days to extract these wares. Tack on The Warrior's 10-day ocean crossing and time spent moving the stuff to and from the ports, and some of this material spent months in transit. Little wonder that the volume of seaborne shipping actually declined in the early 1950s.

Enter McLean. By 1954 he owned the nation's third most profitable trucking company, giving him plenty of experience with transporting goods in big boxes. Already, railroads were shuttling truck trailers on some lines, and some ships were carrying small containers. McLean daringly proposed going further: loading wheelless trailers onto a retrofitted ship in Newark, N.J., and steaming to Houston, where the trailers would be hoisted onto waiting trucks and driven off. On Apr. 26, 1956, his ship Ideal-X was packed with 58 containers in just eight hours. It set sail the same day. Loading the cargo the old way would have cost $5.83 a ton. McLean's team calculated that their new method cut that by over 97%, to 15.8 cents a ton.

Even so, containerized shipping didn't take over quickly. Back in the '50s the government regulated the shipping, rail, and trucking industries and had little interest in upsetting the status quo. Neither did labor unions or port cities, which rightfully feared McLean's system would eliminate jobs. But after winning big job buyouts from shippers, longshoremen eventually agreed to handle containers. Meantime, led by Elizabeth, N.J., which became the base for McLean's Sea-Land Services, ports began installing the docks, cranes, and parking lots to accommodate containers.

What really converted the transport sector was the Vietnam War. Supply ships carrying clothing, food, and other supplies for the troops had to be offloaded by hand in Saigon until McLean built a brand-new container port in Cam Ranh Bay in 1967. His first ship delivered 609 35-foot-long boxes, as much material as 10 ordinary, so-called breakbulk ships could carry. McLean didn't stop there. While Sea-Land Services was making money taking supplies to Vietnam, its containers were coming back empty. His next brainstorm: stopping in Japan to load up with goods for the return voyage. There was then no commercial container service between Japan and the U.S. A year later, seven companies were in the business. You probably can work out the rest of the story from there.

By Michael Arndt

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