RogerBW's Blog

The Box, Marc Levinson 17 November 2015

2008 non-fiction, an informal history of the shipping container. Until the Second World War, almost all non-bulk freight was breakbulk, loaded one piece at a time into a ship's hold. Fifty years later, pretty much everything long-distance was going in containers. How did the change come about?

Fair warning: I am the sort of person who is prone to find things like this extremely interesting. It's not so much that I've never thought about these commonplace objects, as Levinson assumes; it's that I've thought about them without a lot of background information, which is delivered here.

This isn't a personal story, for the most part, though Malcom McLean figures largely in it. While he gets the credit these days, he wasn't the inventor of containers, but the man who made them work: more Henry Ford than Karl Benz. One thing this book makes very clear is that containers had been tried before, repeatedly; Levinson traces them back to British and French railways using standard-sized wooden boxes to move household furniture in the late nineteenth century, and by the end of the Great War there were various systems using truck bodies that could be detached from their chassis, but none of these ever became specifically popular. One of the questions the book attempts to answer is: why didn't containers take off earlier? And it's a complex one.

Some of it was simply that the early containers were too small and often made of wood, producing too much structural dead weight (up to a quarter of the loaded weight) and too many separate units that needed to be moved. Or when they got bigger, a small company would take a while to produce enough goods to fill one. Perhaps more importantly, there were no dedicated container ships, so the things had to be craned in and out of ships' holds along with other breakbulk freight, just like a large packing case. And that is something McLean did fix: his Ideal-X, a converted Second World War T-2 tanker, carried fifty-eight 33' truck bodies in a framework over the deck, and was the first successful container ship. The crucial point was to cut down the time spent at dock: a container ship could load and unload the same mass of cargo faster than a breakbulk ship, with a dedicated crane (using a spreader bar so that it could lock on to a container without needing a hook crew on the ground) unloading the first row, then alternating between unloading another container and loading one from the ready stack into the hole that had been made.

There are echoes of other times and other places: the Pan-Atlantic Company's patenting of its corner-to-corner locking mechanism, which nearly killed attempts at standardisation before they'd got started, are very reminiscent of the Wright Brothers' attempts to control all of early aviation. The longshoremen's unions' attempts to prevent containers from coming to their ports at all, or at the very least to require the employment of as many men as had been needed to unload a breakbulk ship, often reminded me of the desperate modern flailings of the MPAA and RIAA and their international sibling organisations as they attempt to preserve their inherited monopolies.

Levinson's economic sympathies certainly seem to be with the laissez-faire school, but he's not indifferent to the plight of the longshoremen: yes, there was massive inefficiency, corruption and pilferage, not to mention explicit make-work, but the unions which accepted that the world was changing and tried to get a good deal for their current members did a whole lot better than the ones that tried to keep the world as it had been: when they resorted to their traditional weapon, the strike that would close a port, they brought the whole thing down in flames as cargo simply moved to a port that was still open, and then had no reason to move back.

Another part of this story is the land transport of containers, and in some ways that seems more revolutionary than the marine part: as regulatory barriers were eroded, especially in the USA, it ceased to matter what route a shipper would use, or where a consignment of goods would be landed. Rail and truck delivery competed directly against ships to produce a system in which transport costs, while not quite negligible, were no longer the double-digit percentages of total goods costs that they had been, thus leading to the decay of the hinterlands around ports as their location was no longer worth the high cost of doing business there.

What the book also shows is the pressure towards greater size, first for more efficient ships and the ports to service them. This in turn destroyed the tramp freighter: the tramp's running costs were basically fuel and maintenance, so they could be laid up when business was bad. The new huge ships were so expensive that they had to be built with bank loans rather than saved up for, which meant that the loan payments still had to be made, so they were always in service, scrambling for any available cargo and pushing down carriage prices below what the tramp could afford to accept; this also contributed to the booms and busts of the 1970s and 1980s. Also interesting is the pressure for manufacturing companies to get big enough that they could regularly fill a container and send it off rather than having to make smaller shipments, and for customers to get big enough that they could receive one and deal with its contents.

The last of the major points I'm going to mention – look, just buy the book, OK? – is a shift in attitude. Before the container, a company could be "about" running ships, or employing truck drivers. Once it had become universal, the freight company had at least to be aware of other modes of transport, and in effect to become a logistics firm, "about" moving cargo, making its own decisions about routeing over a series of different transport modes.

Most of the examples are American, though there's mention of Tilbury (held up for several years by the unions), and Felixstowe (where the unions had never bothered to recruit, thus leading directly to its current pre-eminent position in the UK). There's not always as much technical detail as one might like, but that may be my particular perversion; there's certainly enough for most casual readers. There are other things missing, to my mind: some mention of the various non-shipping uses to which containers have been put would have been particularly welcome. But overall this is a fascinating book, and one that I'd recommend wholeheartedly.

Recommended to me by Bob Dowling.

(A second edition is due out in March 2016.)

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:31pm on 17 November 2015

    I suggest that the UK has not yet solved the problem of inland transport of containers. They all go by road, which is terrible, it clogs up the road network and wears out the roads as well. The problem though is our railways generally have too narrow a loading gauge to accept containers, unlike the USA where lots of containers go by rail. Plus there's minimal rail connections to Felixstowe.

    The lack of unions at Felixstowe nearly didn't happen. Part of the story of Sir John Bradfield and Trinity College's development of Felixstowe is some desperate negotiating to keep the unions out and to prevent a buyout by British Ports or whatever the nationalised (and closed shop unionised) industry was called. Felixstowe was independent and hence not closed shop, but it nearly got nationalised.

  2. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 02:39pm on 17 November 2015

    Fascinating. I come at this from the railway perspective and now of course the military are palletizing their logistic services. HEMTT-PLS being an example.

    The railways and railroads took a lot longer to figure out the solutions to the technical problems but the breakthrough came when the Southern Pacific put into service stacked containers which was the beginning of what is now referred to as intermodal freight trains. The big driver was reduction in fuel cost IIRC about 30%. That was an eye-opener for the American railroad companies.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 02:57pm on 17 November 2015

    Owen,

    Felixstowe was well-connected by rail by the standards of the 1960s. There just hasn't been a lot of track-building since. Going by the book, the key point was that Felixstowe had never had a general cargo business (because it was so small), it had never employed casual dock labour, so the unions were starting from scratch in trying to get into the place when it suddenly became important (there were only 90 labourers on site and they were all in long-term employment). I suspect the nationalisation attempt would have happened earlier than the 1960s, and the book doesn't mention it; rather it talks about the UK government's attempts to develop Tilbury as the big UK container port, which were stymied by the unions.

    Ashley,

    Yes, the PLS shows the US military finally learning some of the lessons of Vietnam and using standard containers, or at least ones that are compatible with the commercial standard. (Which reminds me of another blog post I should write.)

    Stacked containers on trains only get a brief mention here; apparently one key part of their success in the US in the 1980s, as opposed to the 1960s when McLean had proposed them, was deregulation meaning that the same trains could carry domestic freight from the Midwest to the West Coast and international freight in the other direction.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:32pm on 18 November 2015

    The takeover and buyout issues at Felixstowe were kept very quiet, since Trinity College desperately wanted to keep the unions out. As did the staff, the non union labour force was paid far more because they actually did a decent day's work. This has only come out in recent years as Bradfield has got older (now deceased).

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