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

In the XX century an invention changed completely the way of trading: the shipping container. Usually people do not think about the container as an invention since it looks like just obvious that things have to be put in some kind of box for shipping, but still in the near past it was not so. Before its invention (and its diffusion and standardization) goods and materials were moved around the world in a slower, more expensive and less efficient way: storing them “by hand” inside cargoes, ships, trucks and trains – and fetching them by hand when they reached the destination.

This book describes hence one of the most useful invention of the humanity, the container, from the beginning to its standardization and improvement. The container made possible to ship every kind of good in a faster and cheaper way: without it the “globalization” would not be possible or at least not complete (shipping costs could neutralize the gains derived from low wages in the delocalization of production. In this respect the container helped both to improve the standard of living of western workers but also to decrease their contractual power and to lose their jobs!).

The story of the container is also the story of a man, Malcom McLean, who invested on it when it was not giving clear economical advantages because of the absence of a system for its exploit (no ad hoc cranes, no standardization of shape and dimensions, no logistic adaptation to containers) and who worked hard for his shipping company, against competitors, technological lock-ins, transport authorities, and bad economical conjunctures.

This book is relevant for our research for many reasons:

  • the container is an innovation that shape society deeply: it improved the standard of living of many people making shipping cheaper and faster. But it also changed the way dockers were working and gave rise to trade union conflicts. It made possible the process of delocalization of production: it helped the development of third world countries but at the same time it helped their exploitation, the loss of work in rich countries and in general it increased the predominance of the power of capital over labor. Container made necessary larger and wider ports, so changed the destiny of lot of cities: many old ports lost importance, other cities with the right characteristics developed high volume ports.
  • the book shows how a single innovation alone may not have success if not supported by standardization, by other innovations (in our case bigger cranes, automation, operation research) and by a coherent socio-economical situation (transport laws, oil prices, etc.).

A big part of the book is dedicated to the personal story of McLean and his companies, so in those pages the topic is not really the “social change” but instead the the difficulties that McLean had to go through. Nonetheless, those “personal story pages” are useful to show how innovation is not a deterministic phenomenon.

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