Containers and their enemies

A review of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson (Princeton University Press, 2006. 392 pages)

Strictly, the father of the modern international shipping container, Malcolm Mclean, didn’t invent his own invention. It wasn’t even new.

When the shipping container was first deployed on McLean’s converted World War II tanker Ideal X in 1956, experiments with its ancestors had been being conducted for nearly a century. British and French railway operators tried using custom-made wooden boxes for household furniture shipment in the second half of the nineteenth century. After the First World War, entrepreneurs experimented with interchangeable truck bodies and steel containers for railroads.

The problem was simple: none of these efforts ever demonstrated any cost savings to transport. Malcolm Mclean’s innovation was not the box itself, but the systematised, standardised, international network of shipping containers, freighting massive quantities of goods speedily and efficiently across the world.

Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger 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.


Before the shipping container, the job of a longshoreman was brutally physical. Longshoreman could utilise winches to load and unload ships, but, as the unsorted cargo was dumped on the dock after its trip by railway or truck, and squeezed into every irregular space in the ship’s hold, human force was resorted to more often than not. Levinson quotes a former pier supervisor: ‘Because they had to bend over to do that, you’d see these fellows going home at the end of the day kind of like orangutans. I mean, they were just kind of all bent, and they’d eventually straighten up the next day’.

Not only this, but as pallets were packed and unpacked to squeeze into irregularly shaped cargo holds (the shipping fleet used after the war was mostly converted military surplus, not custom-made cargo vessels) damage — and ‘damage’ — were common. Longshoremen would pride themselves on such skills as the ability to tap whiskey form a sealed cask supposedly stored deep in the ship’s hold.

Automation, in its full-blooded shipping container form, came as a shock to the highly parochial and defensive maritime unions. Containerships could be loaded and unloaded in one-sixth of the time it took for traditional cargo ships. Sealed containers dramatically reduced theft. More disturbingly, containerisation required one-third of the labour. When the first shipping line asked to hire a smaller work gang in New York, the unions announced boycotts. The industry was to become bogged down in union disputes for ten years after the Ideal X first sailed.

Levinson details carefully the internecine rivalries of competing unions and the negotiations needed to relax the rigid contracts which had dominated maritime work. The radical changes that were re-negotiated slowly modernised the docks, but also spurred a massive boost in productivity for non-containerised cargo loading, as employers were suddenly given the capacity to change previously entrenched work practices on the docks. The casual conditions and practices were, in the ensuing decades, converted into highly paid, highly structured and highly secure jobs. But one unionist lamented: ‘the fun is gone’.


Unions desperate to preserve existing work practices present a huge challenge for entrepreneurial innovation, but, as Mclean and other adopters of the shipping container discovered, the challenge posed by regulators can be even larger. By the mid-twentieth century, the United States’ Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had developed a firm regulatory structure which was being undermined not only by the nascent shipping container, but also by the increasing dominance of trucking.

The ICC, which regulated the rates and services of both trains and interstate trucks, struggled to adjust its regulations to the new dynamics of trucking and shipping. Rates were previously set depending on the commodity being carried, but in an era of homogenous containers distinguishable only by weight, this rate-setting principle began to make less and less sense.

But the ICC’s primary error was not practical but philosophical. The ICC’s brief, which was reiterated in the Transportation Act of 1958, was to block the chimeras of unfair or destructive competition. In the highly dynamic transport industry of the 1950s and 1960s, this instruction encouraged the ICC to protect existing operators from innovative practices such as the shipping container, and ‘piggy-backing’ — that is, placing a truck’s body on rail for the long legs of its journey.

A regulator briefed to defend an industry against ‘destructive’ competition — a phrase which is antithetical to an entrepreneurial economy — is not uncommon. It is just as antithetical to economic growth. Regulatory frameworks which are built around specific technologies or business models have no reason to promote innovation within that industry, and firms which benefit from the confines of those frameworks have every reason to prevent or resist change.

After a lengthy series of court decisions and regulatory pronouncements, the full influence of containerisation, which both ripped up the transport industry and pumped up the world economy, is obvious.

Levinson spends time trying to tease out the quantitative benefits of the box — as he notes, ‘a near impossible task’ — but he quotes Edward L. Gleaser and Janet E. Kohlhase who argue that, ‘it is better [now] to argue that moving goods is essentially costless than to assume that moving goods is an important component of the production process’.

Levinson convincingly credits McLean’s shipping container as a major, if not definitive, cause of the boom in world trade since the 1960s.


There was a boom for the international economy, but like so many economic revolutions, the benefits were diffuse. There were definite losers, particularly if you were a mayor in a town traditionally based around a port. The new breed of ship quickly outgrew the available space in ports designed before the container. Furthermore, older ports tended to have entrenched unions with just as entrenched antagonism towards change.

But some of the largest problems for older ports stemmed from the rapid change in business models caused by dramatically cheaper ocean transport. Immediately, the cost advantages of a factory location in New York, right next to the port, were eliminated. Between 1967 and 1976, New York lost a quarter of its factories and one-third of its manufacturing jobs.

In 2006, with ‘essentially costless’ transportation, it is possible to distribute the production of goods across the globe. The sudden rise of ports at Busan in Korea and La Havre in France and new ports at Felixstowe in England and Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia, capable of processing super-sized container ships is just as much a factor in the deindustrialisation of the Western world as is industrial relations.

Once the impact of containerisation was clear, traditional port cities unleashed vast sums of money during the 1970s and 1980s to upgrade their infrastructure. In some cases they were successful. Seattle’s docks saw 10 per cent less cargo in 1960 than 1950, but had managed to resuscitate their traffic by the 1970s. Others, such as New York, tried and failed to do so.

But by the 1990s, not even the largesse of government was sufficient to make or break ports. Seven of the top 20 ports in 2003 had seen little or no traffic in 1990. Tanjung Pelepas, which now handles three and a half million 20-foot containers a year, did not exist in 1990. These new ports are mostly privately financed and managed — as Levinson describes them, ‘investments in globalisation’. As container ships inevitably grow, new ports will be built to service them.

In 2006, the revolution in international transport is obvious, but not complete. All innovation is incremental; steady computerisation and automation is cutting down the time spent at port and streamlining the processes. Reduced paper handling in Australian ports, and the reduction in manpower and human error it has brought, has already brought greater productivity for shipping lines. The upheaval brought about by containerisation has cleared many of the entrenched obstacles to change.

For the dock culture in the old, traditional, highly-unionised ports, the fun may be gone, but the benefits to all consumers brought about by costless shipping are clear.