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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger Hardcover – April 9, 2006
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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.
Shortlisted for the 2006 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year
Winner of the 2007 Bronze Medal in Finance/Investment/Economics, Independent Publisher Book Awards
Honorable Mention for the 2006 John Lyman Book Award, Science and Technology category, North American Society for Ocean History
Winner of the 2007 Anderson Medal, Society for Nautical Research
Top customer reviews
Container shipping is a business-to-business technology. Few consumers have ever directly sent or received a TEU container. Thus, one of the transformative technologies of the 20th century has gotten relatively little public attention.
The technology itself is straightforward: put a lot of cargo in a large box (20 feet or 40 feet long), seal the box, move the box over the world transportation network (ships, railroads, and trucks), and then un-pack the box at the far end. Among other things, this system cuts down on shrinkage from theft.
The business side is more complicated. Somebody had to design ships that could carry boxes more efficiently. Somebody had to persuade ports to install new container-handling systems. Somebody had to tell a lot of dock workers that their services were no longer needed.
In the end, most of the lower costs flowed through to shippers rather than the companies offering shipping services, That's a good thing.
Levinson's book covers this revolution from several angles. On the down-side, there is no central heart to the book; the closest he comes is following the career of Malcom McLean, although even that narrative thread is interrupted often. On the up-side, the book is meticulously sourced, with many references to original documents from ports in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Until the mid 1960s, ocean freight was transported in breakbulk ships; the cargo manually jammed into the ships' holds by teams of longshoremen. The process was laborious and time consuming. Major port cities like New York and London were structured around their docks, with factories near their ports to minimise the costs involved with the multiple handling and warehousing involved in transporting goods.
Then, a few pioneers started trying to move freight in containers. Within a few short decades, containers revolutionised world trade. Containers of goods could be seamlessly moved from a factory, between trucks, trains, and ships to customers. Where once it may have taken months to ship a product from the US to Europe, it can now take less than a week. Global trade skyrocketed!
Nobody predicted the enormous impact that containers were to have on the global economy. Once, firms concentrated their factories in one location to minimise transport costs. With the advent of fast, cheap and reliable container shipping, component manufacture was farmed out around the world to the cheapest supplier. The structures of port cities changed drastically, with whole longshore communities being destroyed, and factories moving to where land was cheap. Of course, countries in Asia soon became major manufacturing powers.