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Monday, January 5, 2015

The money or the box?


The shipping container might seem an unlikely candidate for the most influential invention of the 20th century, but it has arguably had a bigger impact than the aeroplane or the microchip.

It’s difficult to believe now, but until the 1970s virtually all goods were shipped around the world loose — that is, crammed into the holds of old-fashioned cargo ships. While various people had thought of putting cargo in big boxes, trucking company owner Malcolm McLean is generally credited with inventing the shipping container.

McLean bought an old oil tanker in the mid-1950s and began experimenting with using it to carry trucks. When that idea didn’t work out, he switched his focus to boxes, enlisting the help of engineer Keith Tantlinger, and the ‘intermodal container’ was born. By eliminating wasted space, it allowed ships to carry many times more cargo, and cut unloading time by up to three weeks. The next breakthrough came in 1968.

‘The International Standards Organisation, which is still today the most important agency that tries to standardise dimensions and features, came to conclusions that imposed on the rest of the world a standard box,’ says Professor Brian Slack of Montreal’s Concordia University. ‘The box was identified as being eight-foot high, eight-foot wide and 20-foot long.’

‘In terms of containerisation, which became a global phenomenon, it would have had great difficulty in doing that were it not for the fact that the boxes that everybody adopted where of fixed dimensions. And the key to that is that you could design a ship to fit exclusively those dimensions of boxes.’

The impact of containerisation was enormous. McLean was named ‘Man of the Century’ by the International Maritime Hall of Fame and his invention transformed the transport industry. It became apparent that retrofitting existing boats was impractical, and as a result an entirely new fleet of cargo ships needed to be built. Many traditional shipping lines folded, unable to bear the expense.

If containerisation was difficult for existing firms, it was catastrophic for many ports and the cities and neighbourhoods centred on them. The fact that containers can be put on semi-trailers or trains and transported cheaply and easily away from the ocean has caused the decline of entire cities. Mediterranean ports declined as shipping companies bypassed them on the way to Rotterdam’s European container hub. Traditional UK ports like Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol found themselves on the wrong side of the country. In the US, east coast ports like Baltimore and New York declined in favour of western hubs like Oakland.

The other big loser was the dockside workforce. While some dockworkers, like crane operators, managed to increase their salaries through mechanisation, many more lost their jobs. ‘Before, gangs of labourers working long hours in the port on long shifts resulted in a very large labour force being required, but with containers, manpower was supplanted by cranes and other kinds of dockside equipment,’ says Professor Slack. ‘The result was a significant, very large reduction in the need for manpower.’

Workers on ships were similarly affected. Containerisation has completely changed the lives of sailors, who were already doing a dangerous and physically demanding job. Container ships today are often crewed by mariners from developing countries, who are less likely to be put off by virtually never getting a chance to rest or to spend more than a few days on land. They often joke — except they are not really joking — that their job is prison with a salary.

"The Box" tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerisation brought about. Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container.

When I assisted in the setting-up of the Western Samoan-based 'Pacific Forum Line' and later was consultant to the Penang Port Commission in Malaysia, containerisation was still a shipping by-product: it already existed but most cargo was still shipped as so-called 'break bulk'.

It was the container that globalised the world, allowing the outsourcing and off-shoring of large manufacturing activities in developing economies. Without it, China would not have become the world's factory and there would be no giant ships like these.