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

by Marc Levinson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)


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Book Description

March 20, 2006

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.



Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A book about the history of the shipping container? At first, one has to wonder why. (An eventuality not lost on the author, who muses "What is it about the container that is so important? Surely not the thing itself...the standard container has all the romance of a tin can.") The catch, though, is that Levinson, an economist, "treats containerization not as shipping news, but as a development that has sweeping consequences for workers and consumers all around the globe." That latter statement drives this book, which is about the economic ramifications of the shipping container-from the closing of traditional (and antiquated) ports to the rise of Asia as the world's preeminent provider of inexpensive consumer goods (distributed, naturally, using mammoth shipping containers). Levinson maintains his focus on the economics of shipping vast quantities of merchandise, organizing the book into snappy, thematic chapters on different facets of shipping ("The Trucker," and "Union Disunion," for instance), an approach that lends itself well to spot-reading. Throughout, the writing is clean-more informal than rigidly academic (union boss Teddy Gleason is "a voluble Irishman born hard by the New York docks")-making the book suitable for casual readers as well as students looking for a different take on the evolution of 20th-century world economics.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

One of the most significant, yet least noticed, economic developments of the last few decades [was] the transformation of international shipping. . . . The idea of containerization was simple: to move trailer-size loads of goods seamlessly among trucks, trains and ships, without breaking bulk. . . . Along the way, even the most foresighted people made mistakes and lost millions. . . . [A] classic tale of trial and error, and of creative destruction.
(Virginia Postrel The New York Times)

Marc Levinson's concern is business history on a grand scale. He tells a moral tale. There are villains ... and there is one larger than life hero: Malcom McLean. . . . Levinson has produced a fascinating exposition of the romance of the steel container. I'll never look at a truck in the same way again.
(Howard Davies The Times)

Like much of today's international cargo, Marc Levinson's The Box arrives 'just in time.'. . . It is a tribute to the box itself that far-off places matter so much to us now: It has eased trade, sped up delivery, lowered prices and widened the offering of goods everywhere. Not bad for something so simple and self-contained.
(Tim W. Ferguson The Wall Street Journal)

[A] smart, engaging book. . . . Mr. Levinson makes a persuasive case that the container has been woefully underappreciated. . . . [T]he story he tells is that of a classic disruptive technology: the world worked in one fashion before the container came onto the scene, and in a completely different fashion after it took hold.
(Joe Nocera The New York Times)

Mr Levinson. . . . makes a strong case that it was McLean's thinking that led to modern-day containerisation. It altered the economics of shipping and with that the flow of world trade. Without the container, there would be no globalization.
(The Economist)

A fascinating new book. . . . [I]t shows vividly how resistance to technological change caused shipping movements to migrate away from the Hudson river to other East Coast ports.
(Management Today)

Marc Levinson's The Box . . . illustrates clearly how great risks are taken by entrepreneurs when entrenched interests and government regulators conspire against them. Even after these opponents are dispatched, technological and economic uncertainty plague the entrepreneur just as much as the vaunted 'first-mover advantage' blesses him, perhaps more. The story of the shipping container is the story of the opponents of innovation.
(Chris Berg Institute of Public Affairs Review)

International trade . . . owes its exponential growth to something utterly ordinary and overlooked, says author Marc Levinson: the metal shipping container.... The Box makes a strong argument. . . . Levinson . . . spins yarns of the men who fought to retain the old On the Waterfront ways and of those who made the box ubiquitous.
(Michael Arndt BusinessWeek)

[An] enlightening new history. . . . [The shipping container] was the real-world equivalent of the Internet revolution.
(Justin Fox Fortune)

Marc Levinson's The Box is . . . broad-ranging and . . . readable. It describes not just the amazing course of the container-ship phenomenon but the turmoil of human affairs in its wake.
(Bob Simmons The Seattle Times)

Author and economist Marc Levinson recounts the little-known story of how the humble shipping container has revolutionized world commerce. He tells his tale using just the right blend of hard economic data and human interest. . . . Mr. Levinson's elegant weave of transportation economics, innovation, and geography is economic history at its accessible best.
(David K. Hurst Strategy + Business)

The Box is . . . an engrossing read. . . . The book is well-written, with detailed notes and an index. I found it absorbing and informative from the first page.
(Graham Williams Sydney Morning Herald)

This well-researched and highly readable book about the ubiquitous containers that carry so much of the world's freight will no doubt surprise most readers with its description of the immensity of the impact this simple rectangular steel box has had on global and regional economics, employment, labor relations, and the environment. . . . The Box makes for an excellent primer on innovation, risk taking, and strategic thinking. It's also a thoroughly good read.
(Craig B. Grossgart Taiwan Business Topics)

The ubiquitous shipping container . . . as Mark Levinson's multilayered study shows . . . has transformed the global economy.
(The Australian)

By artfully weaving together the nuts and bolts of what happened at which port with the grand sweep of economic history, Levinson has produced a marvelous read for anyone who cares about how the interconnected world economy came to be.
(Neil Irwin Washington Post)

Here's another item we see every day that had a revolutionary effect. The shipping container didn't just rearrange the shipping industry, or make winners of some ports (Seattle and Tacoma among them). It changed the dynamics and economics of where goods are made and shipped to.
(Bill Virgin Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Excellent.
(J Bradford DeLong The Edge Financial Daily)

An engrossing read. . . . The book is well written, with detailed notes and an index. I found it absorbing and informative from the first page.
(Sydney Morning Herald)

A fascinating history of the shipping container.
(Richard N. Cooper Foreign Affairs)

For sheer originality . . . [this book] by Marc Levinson, is hard to beat. The Box explains how the modern era of globalization was made possible, not by politicians agreeing to cut trade tariffs and quotas, but by the humble shipping container.
(David Smith The Sunday Times)

Ingenious analysis of the phenomenon of containerism.
(Stefan Stern Financial Times)

This is a smoothly written history of the ocean shipping container. . . . Marc Levinson turns it into a fascinating economic history of the last 50 years that helps us to understand globalization and industrial growth in North America.
(Harvey Schachter Globe and Mail)

This is an ingenious analysis of containerization--a process that, Levinson argues, in fact made globalization possible.
(Business Voice)

Using a blend of hard economic data and financial projections, combined with human interest, Levinson manages to provide insights into a revolution that changed transport forever and transformed world trade.
(Leon Gettler The Age)

There is much to like about Marc Levinson's recent book, The Box. . . . Levinson uses rich detail, a combination of archival and anecdotal data to build his story, and is constantly moving across levels of observation. . . . And the story of the box is a very good read.
(Administrative Science Quarterly)

A lively and entertaining history of the shipping container. . . . The Box does a fine job of demonstrating how exciting the container industry is, and how much economists stand to lose by ignoring it.
(William Sjostrom EH.Net)

The Box is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in understanding the emergence of our contemporary 'globalized' world economy.
(Pierre Desrochers Independent Review)

[T]he insights the book provides make it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how international trade in goods has evolved over the last 50 years.
(Meredith A. Crowley World Trade Review)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1st Ed. edition (March 20, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691123241
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691123240
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marc Levinson is an economist and historian specializing in business and finance. He was formerly finance and economics editor of The Economist, worked as an economist at a New York bank, and served as senior fellow for international business at the Council on Foreign Relations. For more information, check out his website at www.marclevinson.net.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
249 of 256 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In "On the waterfront," perhaps the saddest point of the film is where Fr. Barry eulogizes K. O. Duggan, killed off by the mob. But Marc Levinson has located a larger villain, the real force that killed off so many longshoremen's careers: the standardized shipping container. While a highly trained crane operator working today's docks earns $120,000 a year, their numbers are few and few of them are former longshoremen or sons of longshoremen. And cargo handling costs have dropped over 90%. Yet this is only the start. The shipping container reduced spoilage, theft, insurance costs, delays, and the entire cost of going global.

Levinson's well-researched treatment of a seemingly pedestrian subject works effectively to show that the world is not flat. The original dust cover of Friedman's best-selling book shows a tall-masted ship going over the edge of the 'flat' earth, confirming flat earth society members' discarded beliefs but distorting and mischaracterizing globalization. Levinson's rich, detailed, data-filled work shows the stark difference between Levinson's work with The Economist and Friedman's with The New York Times. Levinson uses a thorough, comprehensive economic and technological analysis, while Friedman flies around the world with a consistent "gee whiz" attitude of surprise. Levinson traces multitudes of disparate events and finds common links where Friedman finds common links and illustrates them with cursory events. Levinson is an economist; Friedman is a journalist. Friedman mixes metaphors and hyperbole; Levinson mixes in a wide range of colorful characters and challenges. Levinson is an editor; Friedman needs one. People who want to understand the recent history, impetus and infrastructure of globalization need to read "The box.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The shipping container and W. W. Rostow's Stages theory February 11, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The first thing that struck me about the impact of the shipping container was the public policy impact on it. Before the shipping container, shipping, trucking, and railroading were heavily regulated by the ICC. Rates were set not only according to weight and distance, but also according to contents. Thus, the cost of shipping 1000 pounds of tires would be different than, say, 1000 pounds of grain, and not just because of density differences. This apparently goes back to the complaints made by shippers in the late 19th century, and made sense to regulators in that era. Also, prior to the container, shippers were allowed to charge less than truckers because ships took longer. So if a ship already had a stated rate for, say, wheat, between two ports, truckers were not allowed to charge less (or something like that - Levinson didn't attempt to explain the intricacies of ICC regulation). Further, shipping between American ports was restricted to American flagged ships, and international shipping was heavily regulated and subsidized - to qualify for the subsidy, you had to use American built ships, and the subsidy supposedly helped make up for the more expensive American crew. One final government involvement in the era just prior to the shipping container's introduction: many of the ships currently in use in 1956 were WWII surplus ships, built on the cheap and available for next to nothing. It was relatively easy to get into the business, as very little capital was required, and ships could ply from port to port picking up freight as they went.

Enter the shipping container, 1956.

But wait: the container requires different infrastructure. The story of the shipping container is also the story of ports where governments chose to support the companies investing in the container.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserves a wider audience than it will get November 23, 2006
Format:Hardcover
It's hard now to imagine a world without marine shipping containers, but the first one was loaded onto a ship, the Ideal-X, just 50 years ago. Precisely, on April 26, 1956, in Newark, N.J.

It turned the world upside down. It probably had as much to do with the success of Waikiki as the jet airliner, introduced in 1960.

The story has a hero, Malcom McLean, and it plays out, for him and for many others, as tragedy.

In "The Box," Marc Levinson makes business history read like a novel. Well, almost.

Like many simple, everyday things, the shipping container is more complicated than it looks. Just how do you design a steel box that can hold 20 tons but also has to be picked up without being touched by human hands and moved from ship to truck in less than a minute?

McLean, a North Carolina boy who founded a trucking empire in the days of heavy regulation in order to save $3, took the plunger's approach. In the Pacific, Matson Navigation Co. was also interested in converting from expensive breakbulk cargo handling, but it took the systems approach.

McLean beat Matson by two years, but Matson is still around (as the principal subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin Inc.), while McLean's SeaLand survives today only as a subsidiary (a very large one) of a Danish business that didn't exist until 1973.

McLean did not imagine he was going to restructure the world economy, but his idea did that, which is why this book deserves a wider audience than business histories usually get.

The container killed off New York and London as important shipping ports. New York City now handles only a little more cargo each year than Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia, which did not exist in 1990.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars great history of shipping, sometimes more detail than needed
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I simply wish that it didn't take so long to read. It's something that I really would've liked to seen in a two hour documentary. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Benjamin L. Willmore
5.0 out of 5 stars Nerdy good
Any engineer or product designer should enjoy reading about how 'The Box' came to be; it's much more interesting than it sounds. Read more
Published 6 days ago by antigone
4.0 out of 5 stars Great accounting of a seemingly invisible industrial change
The Box is exceptionally thorough, but very clear. The advent of the container and the standard of sizes, how to use, apply to different modes of transport (ship, rail, truck) is... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Ed Sanden
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative book out there on the history of Containers
I have always been fascinated by the shipping industry. Although i believe i knew far less about it before i read this book. Read more
Published 12 days ago by egeorge
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read
I was having a conversation with a friend on the way in to work as we passed the docks in Seattle stacked up in containers. Read more
Published 13 days ago by David M.
5.0 out of 5 stars Acurate Account
Excellent historical business book. I have a friend who was involved in the beginning of containerization and he confirmed the facts presented.
Published 14 days ago by Paul S.
4.0 out of 5 stars Containerization and its founders
This is a great history of the shipping container, almost encyclopedic. Learned more than I ever wanted about union labor in shipping. Read more
Published 29 days ago by W. Leingang
5.0 out of 5 stars I keep finding myself using what I learned in this volume
You'd think that a book about the development of the ubiquitous shipping containers stacked everywhere would be boring. Far from it. Read more
Published 1 month ago by abycats
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive history
I read "The Box" after a disappointing read of "Ninety Percent of Everything" This book really is an insightful and comprehensive history of shipping containers... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Henry H. Kaldenbaugh
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book
It's good documented and important to understand the today's market flow, specially the international trade and the opportunities to the future.
Published 1 month ago by Cristian
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