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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World… (2006)

von Marc Levinson

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In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about. Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible. But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential. Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.… (mehr)
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In economic theory, standardization goes hand in hand with division of labor; Adam Smith's pin factory wouldn't have worked nearly so well without a single pin size. Examples of useful standards are everywhere: the metric system, TCP/IP packets, DIN slots, shoe sizes... some are driven by physical needs, others are arbitrary, but when they were decided, all created winners and losers. Few international standards have created more winners and losers than the shipping container, one of the most important standards of the 20th century, and Marc Levinson transforms what could have been a deadly boring trudge through ISO meeting minutes into a fairly interesting, if somewhat disjointed account of the irresistible force of containerization and the not-quite immovable objects of shipping lines, railroads, trucking companies, labor unions, and port authorities trying to hang onto obsolete shares of the inefficient pre-containerization transport landscape. Before The Box, shipping was a torturously slow, expensive, loss- and theft-prone venture dominated by industry cartels and longshoreman's unions, each more concerned with protecting their own high profits and wages than facilitating commerce. Enter self-made transport tycoon Malcom McLean, whose business savvy and early embrace of the container allowed him to exert vast commercial, industrial, and military influence on the country even while remaining fairly obscure. Seemingly minor decisions, like what kind of clasp should be used to seal the container, or how many sizes there should be, had billion-dollar consequences, to say nothing of the shifting flows of wealth from San Fransisco, New York, and London to Oakland, East Rutherford, and Felixstowe. I really liked how Levinson avoided casting anyone in the story as a hero or villain; economics isn't a simple morality play of noble innovators versus evil protectionists, and it's easy to forget that while containerization has created thousands of companies and millions of jobs, there were still costs for the businesses, people, and cities who couldn't adapt, that we measure in empty warehouses, vacant lots, and rusting pylons. Consumer surplus in the form of lower transaction costs does not always create new jobs. I just wish there had been more graphs to clarify the extremely data-rich narrative, which also jumps around in time almost constantly, making it tough to tell exactly what's going on. What a fascinating story of one of the most under-appreciated shapes in the world. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
A very interesting story that is occasionally marred by an abundance of unnecessary data in the text. It also doesn't address key ethical issues until near the end, but the tale, from an American perspective, is nonetheless really engaging and makes you rethink the importance of containers in international connectivity. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
Excellent historical account of how since the 1950s the "technology" of shipping containers has changed the logistics of moving goods. Very interesting historical, political, and business details. ( )
  deldevries | May 22, 2020 |
This book provides a practical look at what it takes to move all of the goods we buy around the world, from factory to store, with a focus on the ubiquitous shipping container. I think I really enjoyed this book because of its interdisciplinary approach to the topic --there's a bit of economics, business history, geography, and urban development weaved together in a nice package. The author provides just enough numbers and data to fill out the story, but doesn't overwhelm with facts and figures. The writing is easy to read, and I sped through it fairly quickly. ( )
  josh.gunter | May 7, 2020 |
It takes a lot to take a subject such as a shipping container and make it interesting. Beyond the birth of shipping containers in their various forms and functions; the author weaves together economic, political and labor relations throughout. The impact on port cities, particularly their populations/manufacturing, and how some were able to ride the wave of this emerging technology is fascinating. So too was the evolution of ships and the drive toward standardization to create flow. ( )
  joereg4 | Jan 1, 2020 |
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AutorennameRolleArt des AutorsWerk?Status
Marc LevinsonHauptautoralle Ausgabenberechnet
Flis, LeslieUmschlaggestalterCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
Platter, ClaraUmschlagillustrationCo-Autoreinige Ausgabenbestätigt
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On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted fifty-eight aluminum truck bodies aboard an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey.
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Malcom McLean's persistence in pushing containerization was vital to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Without it, America's ability to prosecute a large-scale war halfway around the world would have been severely limited. The U.S. military would have experienced extreme difficulty feeding, housing, and supplying the 540,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and air force personnel who were in Vietnam by the start of 1969. Continual headlines about theft, supply shortages, and massive waste woiuld have caused domestic support for the war to erode even faster than it did. Containerization enabled the United States to sustain a well-fed and well-equipped force through years of combat in places that would otherwise have been beyond the reach of U.S. military might.
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In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about. Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible. But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential. Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.

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