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a blog from Eli the Bearded

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

The Box
"How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger"
by Marc Levinson

I've finally read this book, which has been pretty much always checked out of the San Francisco Public Library since I've started checking. (It doesn't help they apparently only have two copies system wide.)

The book doesn't assume you know much about shipping before or after the container revolution, doesn't use much specialized vocabulary (save "TEU", see below) has extensive end notes that are mostly citations, and remains pretty focused on the changes brought about by containerized shipping.

As described in the book, shipping largely broke down into tankers, bulk, and "break bulk" before containers. Tankers should be obvious, bulk is things like an entire ship full of grain, and "break bulk" was the rest of it: hauled on and off by hand, moved and stowed by hand, all by longshoremen. Containers ate break bulk's lunch, then moved on to eat its breakfast and dinner, then, still not satisified, went off and cleared the shelves of the store that break bulk shops in.

Less metaphotically, the book tells the story of containers first making some stuff cheaper to ship via break bulk, making most things containerizable faster to ship in containers than break bulk, nearly eliminating dockside theft by longshoreman and thus reducing insurance costs, and then after that, having industry react to container shipping in previously unimagined ways that vastly increased the market for containerized transport.

Along the way, I found this book helped me understand a lot of changes that started before I was born and continue to evolve today. Things like the decline of major ports such as New York and San Francisco, which both suffered because container ports need a lot more space (and waterside space was not abundant in either) and because container ports benefit massively from cheap and easy connections to other modes of transport, which is cheaper and easier at the more inland Port Elizabeth (eating New York's shipping) and Oakland (eating San Francisco's shipping).

Each chapter builds on the one before it, but also each chapter attempts to be functional on its own. If you want to skip the chapter on union fights or the chapter on the standardization process, you won't miss out later on, similarly you can just read those if that's what interests you.

There are some things I'd liked to have more detail about, such as standardization. This book covers the ASA and ISO processes, but only up until the late 1960s, not say the BIC codes that identify particular containers these days. (BIC is a French acronym, and translates to something like Bureau of International Containers.)

There are also hints that lack of suitable large ports for container ships is an obstacle to the development of Africa. Checking online, I haven't found an easy to use list, but I did find:

World Port Source

Which shows locations of ports and gives generalized sizes when you drill down to individual countries. In spot checking, it looks like Greece has more ports, in about the same distribution of large, medium, and small, as all of sub-Sahara Africa. (Chicago is a "large" port and Baltimore is a "very large port" in World Port Source terminology.)

The term "TEU" is well known to anyone who pays attention to container ships, but that initialism is used only once in the text, on the last page. In a few places it is spelled out as "twenty-foot equivalent units", which makes me think the use on the last page was an oversight. Twenty-foot containers were more common earlier on in container history, but forty-foot containers are more common now. TEU is often used to describe the capacity of a ship, but you have to halve it to get the number of forty-foot containers it can carry.

Bonus for reading this far down:

9:30 video showing one factory's process for building containers (audio track is just music, so very safe to watch on mute) on Youtube

Shorter, on-line piece, on another aspect of world logistics: the pallet.

Whitewood under siege ("Whitewood" there meaning unbranded pallets.)

This offers a short history of pallets and then dives into the world of pallet resale / recycling and the heavily-handed recovery efforts of CHEP (the company that owns and rents blue pallets world wide), and newer efforts to displace wooden pallets with plastic ones. That piece has no mention of shipping containers at all.

Final thought: old 24' containers count as 1.2 TEU