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.

The US military had an important influence in the early days of container shipping. During the rapid buildup of American forces in South Vietnam in 1965, the ports of Saigon and Da Nang were overwhelmed by large deliveries of supplies arriving in traditional breakbulk ships. The logistical snafu was ultimately solved by Sea-Land, which converted Cam Ranh Bay into a containerport and soon had six container ships running between the West Coast and Vietnam. Since the containers returned empty, Sea-Land built a terminal in Japan, inaugurating container traffic between the world’s fastest-growing economy and the US.

Levinson devotes an entire chapter to the size of the box. In the beginning, each shipping company had its own containers, with sizes that were suited to its particular needs, including the nature of the cargo, size of ships, crane capacities, and road dimensions. Most containers were roughly eight feet square in cross-section, but lengths varied from fifteen feet to forty feet. This meant that each carrier handled only its own containers, and empty containers had to be returned to their source. Standardization and interchangeability would obviously be an advantage to all. The difficulty was coordinating the various requirements of ships, trains, and trucks. By 1961, the United States Maritime Administration adopted ten, twenty, thirty, and forty feet as standard lengths, and these were ratified three years later by the International Standards Organization. (In practice, most containers are twenty feet long.)

Equally important was standardization of both of the corner fittings, which allowed one container to be stacked upon and attached to its neighbor, and the lifting hooks. It was 1970 before a full set of international standards was adopted. “Finally,” Levinson writes, “it was becoming possible to fill a container with freight in Kansas City with a high degree of confidence that almost any trucks, trains, ports, and ships would be able to move it smoothly all the way to Kuala Lumpur.”

Container shipping has enormous economic advantages. Not only does it reduce theft on the docks and damage to goods, hence lowering insurance rates for the shippers, it eliminates the time-consuming storage and sorting of breakbulk cargo. Most important, it more than doubles the speed of loading and unloading. A container can be lifted directly from the ship to a railroad flatcar or truck chassis. Moreover, as one incoming container is placed on the dock, another can be picked up and hoisted on board, in one smooth operation. Computer software improves the efficiency of the process by bar-coding individual boxes and preplanning the loading sequence. Thus, a high-speed crane can load one twenty-ton box every three minutes, which is “more than forty times the average productivity of a longshore gang using shipboard winches,” Levinson writes.

Having solved the traditional problem of maritime shipping, the time spent loading and unloading, the container then was used to increase the productivity of the sea voyage itself. The first generations of container ships were converted World War II– era vessels, slow, small ships that could carry between two hundred and five hundred containers. In the early 1970s, Sea-Land built a fleet of new container ships, the SL-7 class, that had greater length (almost a thousand feet), capacity (1,900 twenty-foot containers), and speed (they could make the Newark–Rotterdam crossing in only four and a half days). Cudahy calls these ships among “the very finest deepwater vessels ever to fly the US flag.” But these fast ships were gas-guzzlers and, following the energy crisis of 1973, they proved uneconomic. (Eight of the SL-7 class are still sailing, but in the US Navy’s Sealift Command. Converted from container ships to multidecked equipment carriers, they were used in the 2003 Iraq invasion.)

McLean later built slower, more efficient vessels that were even larger, carrying up to 3,500 containers. Since fuel consumption does not increase in proportion to tonnage, the economies of scale dictated larger and larger ships. “By the 1980s,” Levinson writes, “new ships holding the equivalent of 4,200 20-foot containers could move a ton of cargo at 40 percent less [cost] than could a ship built for 3,000 containers and at one-third the cost of a vessel designed for 1,800.” Container ships able to carry as many as 10,000 containers are currently under construction. Such behemoths cannot go through the Panama Canal, and they can be loaded and unloaded only in a small number of deep-water ports such as Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore, and Rotterdam; but they can move cargo across the globe more cheaply and efficiently than ever before.

Globalization is often described as involving the movement of information, people, and employment, but it is largely about the movement of goods, and the cheapest way to move products around the globe is in containers. This has benefited coastal regions and penalized people living inland. For example, shipping a container overland from Durban, South Africa, to Masera, Lesotho, a distance of 215 miles, costs three times as much as shipping it by sea to Durban from Baltimore. It is likely that without container shipping, the economic upsurge of China would not have occurred as quickly as it did. (Three of the four largest containerports in the world—Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen—are in China, and 26 percent of containers originate in that country.) Likewise, third-world countries would be unable to sell many of their products to European and American markets without extremely cheap shipping. Modern manufacturing, in which components are made on one continent and assembled in another, would also be impractical without rapid, predictable, and cheap shipping. In a world of high technology, the story of the container is a useful reminder of the continued importance of old-fashioned mechanics.

One of the great advantages of container shipping, compared to traditional breakbulk, is its high degree of mechanization. Nevertheless, while there are fewer workers, their skills are more important. Coordinating the movement of boxes in and out of a containerport, or operating the mammoth cranes that delicately place the giant boxes on board, requires high skill. How does one learn to handle a thousand-foot-long container ship piled high with boxes? One way is to take a course at Port Revel, a small lake in the Swiss Alps, where ship captains and pilots from around the world come to sail large-scale (1:25) models of container ships and tankers through simulated canals, capes, shoals, and docks. A wave-making machine creates conditions resembling those of the open sea, and electric generators produce underwater currents. “The instructors have a collection of little toy sailors not quite three inches high,” writes John McPhee in his latest book, Uncommon Carriers. “They place them for perspective on the long plain decks of the tankers. The toy sailors are almost unnoticeable, and at scale they are six feet tall. Real sailors use motorbikes on the decks of such tankers.”

Uncommon Carriers deals not only with shipping but with different kinds of freight transportation: railroading, river barging, trucking, and express parcel shipping. This is McPhee’s twenty-eighth book (not counting two anthologies), and at seventy-five, his work is as clear as ever. The essays, most previously published in The New Yorker, are simple in conception. The author catches a ride on an eighteen-wheeler, a coal train, or a river tow, hangs around, talks to the crews, observes the ways they work, and tells us something of what it’s like to be a truck driver, a locomotive engineer, a towboat captain, or a UPS pilot.

The common characteristic of the machines described in Uncommon Carriers is scale—they are big. A train that hauls coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to a power plant near St. Louis is more than a mile long. It takes two locomotives, one at the front and one at the back, to move the 19,000-ton load. The throttle is graduated in “notches.” “After Notch 4, even your underwear can feel the train extend,” McPhee writes. “By Notch 5, you are beginning to develop an interest in whatever might be happening a couple of miles ahead. Notch 8 and you are flat out—minding the loaded speed limit, fifty miles an hour—and thinking ahead at least one county.” The lashed-together raft of barges that the towboat Billy Joe Boling pushes up the Illinois River is altogether 105 feet wide and “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” McPhee points out that the fifteen two-hundred-foot-long barges carry a load equivalent to that of 875 tractor-trailer trucks. Still, the chemical tanker truck that McPhee rides weighs 80,000 pounds fully loaded, and it takes eighteen gears to reach top speed.

Uncommon Carriers is full of interesting information. UPS, McPhee tells us, has founded and endowed a college for its part-time employees; it pays for tuition and books, provides housing assistance, and gives bonuses for passing courses. The distinctive brown color of the company’s vehicles and uniforms was originally borrowed from the color of Pullman railroad cars. We learn that some truck drivers will pay sixty dollars to have their vehicles washed with water that has been treated by reverse osmosis to remove contaminants that produce water spots.

McPhee observes that coal trains are so long that going over a hill, the front locomotive must brake the downhill half of the train, while the rear locomotive is still pushing the back half up the incline. Train traffic spread across eight western states is controlled by sixty dispatchers in an underground bunker in Omaha that resembles an air-traffic control center. McPhee quotes a supervisor: “Air-traffic controllers find this more complicated. We’d like to have a train change its altitude to get over another train—it won’t work.”

Thanks to McPhee’s elegant prose and his close observation, we learn a great deal about the machines, but even more about the people who operate them. The author takes almost boyish pleasure in describing how to actually operate a towboat, or a mile-long coal train, and it is the pilots, engineers, and skippers he encounters who are the true “uncommon carriers” of his title. His essay on a journey in a chemical tanker truck, which he accompanies from Atlanta to Tacoma, consists in large part of comments by Don Ainsworth, its owner-operator. He calls automobile drivers four-wheelers. “Four-wheelers are not aware of the dangers of big trucks. They’re not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you’re likely to die. I’m not going to die. You are.”

McPhee obviously admires the skill with which these men—and except for one UPS pilot they are mostly men—handle machinery. Yachtsmen often rhapsodize about the era of sail, but pushing a thousand feet of barges up a narrow river is at least as difficult as handling a clipper ship. McPhee describes navigating a lock on the Illinois River:

Gingerly, you inch your thirty thousand tons up there past the bull nose. If you are heading downstream and you come in at too much of an angle, your head can become wedged between the short wall and the long wall while your stern is swung around by the current, with the result that your vessel becomes a lever prying at the navigation lock until masonry breaks, wires snap, loose barges are draped all over the dam, and your Billy Joe Boling, whatever it may be called, is hanging on the brink and listing.

McPhee has previously written about the natural environment, but his subject here is man overcoming natural forces, and when he describes the mines of the Powder River Basin, “the largest coal mines in the history of the world,” or the various hazardous materials carried in Ainsworth’s tanker, he does so without commenting on their possibly dangerous environmental effects. Nor is he interested in the economic implications of the various forms of transport he describes. While McPhee sometimes can’t resist a sardonic aside, he is generally content to merely describe the way things are. Only on the last page of his book, walking through a truck stop on a hot California evening, does he muse:

The hum of a truck stop in the dead of night is one of the sonic emblems of America, right up there with the bombs in the air, the rutilant rockets, and the stern impassioned stress. You have not heard the sound of creature comfort until you have heard hundreds of huddled trucks idling through the night.

This is the closest to an editorial comment that he allows himself. For cautionary economic analysis, one must turn to Marc Levinson’s The Box. While celebrating the ways container ships have lowered the costs of international commerce, he poses a series of warnings toward the end of his book:

Containers had become ubiquitous—and in addition to cheap goods, they were bringing a new set of social problems. Stacks of abandoned containers, too beaten up to use, too expensive to repair, or simply unneeded, littered landscapes around the world. The exhaust of containerships and the trucks and trains serving them had become a massive environmental problem, and the endless growth of traffic in and out of expanding ports was subjecting nearby communities to congestion, noise, and high rates of cancer attributed to diesel emissions; the price tag for a cleanup in Los Angeles and Long Beach alone was estimated to be $11 billion.

The flood of containers had become a major headache for security officials concerned that a single box, loaded with a radioactive “dirty” bomb timed to explode upon arrival in a major port, could contaminate an entire city and throw international commerce into chaos; radiation detectors went up at the gates to many terminals in an effort to keep terrorist containers from being loaded aboard ships.* The use of containers outfitted with mattresses and toilets to smuggle immigrants had become routine, with immigration inspectors unable to detect more than a tiny share of containers with human cargo among the hundreds of thousands of boxes filled with legitimate goods.

“None of these problems,” he writes, “serious as they were, posed the most remote threat to the growth of container shipping.”

This Issue

August 10, 2006