How boxing clever changed the world

Container shipLet’s be honest, the evolution of shipping containers isn’t the first thing that springs to mind for a reading list recommendation.

You might struggle to believe that interest could be sustained on the topic at article length much less for an entire book – and you’d be dead wrong.

The hum-drum box unleashed a wave of disruption that smashed union power, consigned thousands of workers to the scrapheap, devastated established city ports, uplifted backwater areas and, as an unforeseen consequence, ultimately became an engine of globalization.

Marc Levinson’s meticulously researched work takes us into a world of cartel stitch-ups, protectionist regulation, corrupt officialdom and high stakes gambles involving billions of dollars in a freight industry arms race that was ruinously expensive for many of its players.

Pioneers like trucking boss Malcolm McLean, the epitome of a self-made man, was a driving force in propelling change, but even his boundless energy after a dockside Eureka moment wasn’t enough.

Change had to be dogged out in a series of frustrating battles over standards, subsidies and route restrictions. There were bet-the-farm buy-outs, leveraged acquisitions and some nimble creative thinking to circumvent the resistance of entrenched vested interests.

It was the Vietnam War that provided one of the key breakthroughs: the military supply chain wasn’t able to keep pace with the rapid commitment of American forces and chaos ensued.

With no dedicated port facilities, supply ships had to lay-up offshore, unload cargoes onto lighters, which then had to be manhandled again at piers and docksides. On this scale, sheer muscle simply wasn’t enough and the military accepted the intervention of the private sector.

Since then, a sophisticated logistics industry has developed, one that touches our lives every day whether it’s through supermarket supply chains or just-in-time delivery of components to manufacturing plants.

The cost savings set in train by the shipping container, on labor, on warehousing, on insurance, on turnaround times, on delivery speeds, were profound. So much so, that industry no longer had to locate its factories where its customers were. China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea with cheap pools of labor and access to US ports were able to take advantage of the new economics of the freight trade and global business was born.

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