Shipping News

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…

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