Multicolored shipping containers are everywhere: piled up in stacks in ports, rolling down highways behind tractor trailers, and rumbling by on railroad flatcars. Most people don’t give the ugly, utilitarian objects a second glance, except perhaps to note the names stenciled on their sides—Maersk, Hanjin, Evergreen—and probably to wonder where they come from. Nobody knows exactly how many containers there are in the world, but estimates run as high as three hundred million. What we do know is that not so long ago, there were none. Shipping containers are a recent American invention. The first full-fledged example of container shipping occurred in April 1956, when a refitted World War II tanker, the Ideal-X, sailed from Newark carrying fifty-eight containers—actually aluminum truck bodies with the wheels removed. Arriving in Houston, the bodies were unloaded, dropped onto trailer chassis, and hauled to their final destinations. On the face of it not a world-shaking event, yet it could be called the beginning of a revolution in transportation.
Both The Box and Box Boats have melodramatic subtitles: “How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” and “How Container Ships Changed the World.” If this sounds like hyperbole, it is warranted. The Box, by Marc Levinson, formerly an editor with The Economist, is a serious economic history that presents convincing evidence of the far-reaching—indeed, global—effects of the advent of the shipping container. Box Boats describes essentially the same material, but since Brian J. Cudahy is a maritime historian, the focus is on the vessels rather than on the global implications of the technology. The author’s discursive prose, with much nautical lore and exhaustive data on ships’ characteristics (there is a separate index just for vessels’ names), makes his a book for ship spotters but of considerably less interest to the general reader.
The shipping container is one of those rare devices, like the light bulb or the telephone, that can be traced to a single inventor, Malcom P. McLean, who ran a trucking business in North Carolina. In 1953, frustrated by increasing highway congestion (the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which was responsible for the interstate highway system, was still three years off), McLean’s scheme to circumvent the bottlenecks was simple. His trailers would be driven aboard specially adapted war-surplus cargo ships, ferried down the coast, unloaded, and hauled away. A little study revealed that truck trailers took up too much space; removing the wheels made for a more compact object that, in addition, could be stacked. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t. The topside of the cargo ship had to be fitted with a metal grid, a so-called spar deck, to hold the containers. The truck bodies had to be reinforced, and containers had to be tied down securely enough to withstand the movement and stresses of maritime travel. Cranes had to be modified to lift the thirty-three-foot-long, twenty-ton boxes. To facilitate rapid hoisting, lifting hooks had to be invented. The Coast Guard, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the American Bureau of Shipping had to be convinced to give their approval. The benefits of all this effort were considerable. At a time when it cost $5.83 per ton to load loose cargo on a medium-sized ship, the cost of loading a ton onto McLean’s container ship, the Ideal-X, was 15.8 cents.
A fully loaded coal train, currently the largest land-based transportation device, carries about 23,000 tons; a large ship can carry three or four times that weight. The buoyancy of water and the lack of significant friction makes maritime transportation, whether by barge, or sailing ship, or tramp steamer, the most effective way to move heavy cargo. The expensive and inefficient part of the process was always loading and unloading, long carried out according to what was known as the breakbulk method. Goods were transported to the waterfront, unloaded, inventoried, and stored in warehouses to await the arrival of the vessel. When the ship docked, the cargo was brought to the quay, where longshoremen bundled the sundry items onto portable platforms—pallets—which were lifted into the ship’s hold by shipboard cranes called gantries.
Down in the hold, a second crew of longshoremen unbundled the pallets and stowed each item individually—barrel, basket, box, bag of cement, coil of wire, whatever. (Efficient stowing was a crucial part of the process since shifting cargo in a storm would endanger the stability of the vessel.) When the ship reached its destination, the entire procedure was reversed. Loading and unloading took a long time—Levinson cites the example of a small cargo ship whose 5,015-ton cargo was comprised of an astonishing 194,582 individual objects. Moreover, a ship had to be entirely unloaded before it could be loaded again. As a result, a typical transatlantic breakbulk cargo ship spent as much time in port as it did at sea.
Since cargo ships did not run on regular schedules, loading and unloading required a large labor force permanently on call. That is why major ports were always associated with large cities. In the decade following World War II, New York and London each had 50,000 dock workers. Both Levinson and Cudahy write of the culture that grew up in waterfront districts. The longshoremen were, in effect, independent contractors, working at odd times, often at the whim of shipping lines and union bosses. Perhaps because they required close work in teams, waterfronts usually became ethnic enclaves. In London, Liverpool, and Boston, the longshoremen were predominantly Irish; in New York, there were separate union locals for Irish, Italians, and blacks; Southern waterfronts were dominated by blacks; West Coast ports by whites. All this engendered a fierce feeling of solidarity (famously dramatized by Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront).
The situation was ripe for exploitation of the workers by the shipping companies, which lagged behind other industries in providing benefits, improved working conditions, and regular hours. That breakbulk loading and unloading were physically exhausting and dangerous helped produced exceptionally militant unions. Maritime shipping had more strikes and labor unrest than many other industries. As Levinson writes, “This history of antagonistic labor-management relations gave rise to two problems that plagued the shipping industry around the world. One was theft…. [The second was] resistance to anything that might eliminate jobs.” Union rules, particularly those requiring employers to hire more workers than they needed, tended to reduce worker productivity so that by 1956 it took almost 50 percent longer to handle a ton of cargo in the Port of New York than it had in 1950.
Into this situation came Malcom McLean and his idea of containerization. The improvement in productivity was dramatic. The padlocked container also drastically reduced the number of objects that “fell off the truck.” (A 1959 Jimmy Cagney comedy about the New York waterfront was titled Never Steal Anything Small.) There was resistance, of course, not only from the unions but also from the cities that ran the ports. What neither unions nor cities fully appreciated was that containerization was not just a different way of loading cargo onto ships. As Levinson writes:
McLean understood that reducing the cost of shipping goods required not just a metal box but an entire new way of handling freight. Every part of the system—ports, ships, cranes, storage facilities, trucks, trains, and the operations of the shippers themselves—would have to change.
Containers were not stored in warehouses but stacked in the open, on paved grounds that resembled vast parking lots. Loading and unloading didn’t require a large labor pool of longshoremen but since traditional shipboard winches were too small to handle the heavy weights, new dockside cranes were needed. Since the great advantage of container shipping was direct and extremely rapid transfer from one mode of transportation to another, direct access to highways and railroad lines was essential. The easiest way to provide all these different requirements was to build brand-new ports especially for containers, known as containerports.
Levinson draws on the experience of New York City to illustrate the devastating effect that container technology had on traditional ports. As late as the mid-1950s, there were 283 working piers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Even in the best of circumstances, these nineteenth-century structures, located on an island on the far side of the Hudson from the rest of the country, were a money-losing proposition. Surrounded by dense neighborhoods and narrow streets, they were ill-suited to handling the transshipment of cargo to trucks and railroads. In addition, New York was a center of corruption, waterfront crime, and arcane labor restrictions.
Thus, when New Jersey announced in 1955 that it was building Port Elizabeth, “the largest port project ever undertaken in the United States,” and McLean’s new company, Sea-Land Service, established its first container terminal at Port Newark, change became inevitable. As Levinson succinctly puts it: “With no room to store thousands of containers and chassis and no way to handle the hundreds of trucks and railcars coming to meet every ship, New York City’s docks were in no position to compete.” By 1960, the New Jersey ports were handling 63 percent of the region’s cargo, including more than half a million containers. By 1970, the New York docks were handling only one fiftieth of the tonnage they had moved in 1960, and most of the piers, including ones that had been recently rebuilt, stood empty or were converted to recreational uses. Levinson argues convincingly that a large part of the loss of manufacturing experienced by New York during those decades was a direct result of the loss of the port. A major competitive advantage of being in New York had been its nearby harbor, and once that moved away, manufacturing moved, too.
The same cycle was repeated in other maritime cities as traditional ports were abandoned in favor of more advantageous locations. Oakland took most of the shipping business from San Francisco, as Seattle did from Portland, Oregon. Containerports were not necessarily close to cities. The Port of New Orleans, for example, was replaced by the Port of South Louisiana, which stretches 54 miles from north of the city to Baton Rouge, on the Mississippi River. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the impact of container shipping on urbanization was the growth of Felixstowe, a tiny North Sea port ninety miles northeast of London. Converted to accept containers in 1966, it shipped cargo to Europe and America. One of its early customers was McLean’s Sea-Land, which carried whiskey for Scottish distillers, who traditionally suffered large losses from theft and did not have to be convinced of the benefits of container shipping. Eventually, Felixstowe became the largest containerport in Britain, while traditional ports such as London and Liverpool declined. In Rotterdam where docks were destroyed by wartime bombing, farsighted planners rebuilt the port in the 1950s to accommodate containers. Rotterdam is now the largest containerport in Europe, and one of the largest in the world.