The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Marc Levinson. Princeton University Press, 2006, 392 pp.
Trade requires transportation, a point economists and other generalists too often neglect. This book, a fascinating history of the shipping container, provides a strong antidote to that neglect. Since its widespread introduction in the late 1960s, the shipping container has revolutionized international trade. The book offers interesting biographical material on Malcolm McLean, creator of SeaLand and the major innovator of containers, but it is really a biography of “the box,” from its early beginnings through vigorous labor-union opposition, international standardization for greater efficiency, the redesign of ships and ports to handle containers, to the “just in time” manufacturing processes made possible by this seemingly simple but in fact revolutionary transformation of the age-old “break-bulk” method of moving cargo. Scale is required to justify the large investments in specialized ships, port facilities, and containers, with the result that whereas some ports thrived with the growth in trade that containers encouraged, others atrophied. As a result, parts of the world not readily accessible by rail, road, or barge from large container ports now find themselves economic backwaters.
Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.