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  • Containers and Causality
  • Alex Roland (bio)

The specter of technological determinism looms over all three of these books. Two of them stand unabashedly in determinism's shadow. The author of the third has one foot in the darkness and one in the bright light of cold, economic skepticism.1

Did containerization spawn globalization? Cast in those terms, the question involves Karl Marx's famous epigram that "the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist." Defenders of Marx insist that the master did not really indulge such reductionist thinking. So also does Marc Levinson, the author of the third book considered here, insist that containerization changed the world without becoming deterministic. As with Marx, the truth of the matter is enshrouded in economic complexities that defy simple formulation.

Most, but not all, authorities agree that containerization has lowered the cost of moving manufactured goods over long distances. Some attribute the savings to reduced labor costs of cargo-handling at dockside. Some add the savings realized by reduced pilferage and breakage. And some think that the most important savings come from reduced capital costs to ship-owners. Because container ships load and unload in a fraction of the time required by conventional cargo vessels, the container ships spend more time at sea earning revenue and less idle time in port. The result is that [End Page 386] goods can be shipped globally from almost any manufacturer to almost any consumer for essentially negligible transportation costs. Some commentators assert—without much reliable data—that transportation costs of container shipping average 1 percent of retail price.

Containerization is a transportation technology that loads packaged cargo—what maritime shippers called "break-bulk cargo"—into standardized steel containers capable of intermodal carriage on ships, trains, and trucks. By international agreement, the containers are standardized at 8 feet wide, 8 to 81 /2 feet high, and 20 or 40 feet long. A twenty-foot container constitutes one TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit), while forty-foot units are FEUs. Fifty years ago, there were no standard containers and only a few experimental types in service. In 2005, the world's seventy-seven busiest container ports passed 297 million TEUs in and out, and this does not count the rail and road traffic in TEUs around the world. Since 1982, container volume has risen on average by 9.9 percent annually. Ships and ports have been transformed to accommodate a seemingly insatiable appetite for the movement of containers and their cargoes.

The three books considered in this essay describe the container revolution from a variety of perspectives, but all base their accounts on the same foundational story. It all began when Malcom McLean divested himself of the trucking company he had founded in his native North Carolina to buy a ship company and transport truck trailers by sea. To fund his scheme, McLean applied his legendary powers of persuasion to young Walter Wriston, a junior officer at First National City Bank (now Citibank) who would go on to be chairman. McLean's Ideal-X, a converted World War II tanker, launched the modern container age when it departed from New Jersey on 26 April 1956 with fifty-eight boxes stacked on a makeshift framework on deck. Through its first decade of operation, McLean's Sea-Land Corporation struggled along on the brink of bankruptcy, acquiring and refitting more ships, developing and standardizing the containers, mounting cranes on the ships themselves and then on custom docks, promoting new port facilities, courting stakeholders such as longshoremen, truckers, and railroad operators, raising new money in gravity-defying feats of "financial and legal engineering" (as Levinson puts it in The Box [p. 45]), and keeping government regulators at bay. Seeing the Vietnam War as an opportunity to prove his system and build up the infrastructure of his fleet, McLean promised improved service to Vietnam's ports at no risk to the U.S. government. By the late 1960s, containerization was taking hold and other companies were jumping on the bandwagon. McLean sold his interest in Sea-Land to Reynolds Industries in 1969 and accepted a position on the company's board, walking...