Vamshidhar Kommineni

April 25, 2007

Book review: The Box (How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger)

Filed under: Books — Vamshi @ 6:55 am

3 stars

Ever looked at a modern city’s ports and wondered about those gigantic cranes or the logistics chain that they were a part of? Or wondered how we went from a world of stevedores/longshoremen and manual unloading to the gigantic container ships and nearly automated loading and unloading? Or better yet, how goods get so cheaply from the world’s manufacturing facilities in China to the US, Europe and other places?

These are the questions the book addresses. It does so by focusing on the humble containers at the root of all this process and retelling their history over the last 50 years or so. If we didn’t have a global standard for shipping container sizes, none of the infrastructure built around them like container ships, cranes, ports, rail cars, truck trailers and others would be possible.

The book shapes the story of the shipping container around one man Malcolm McLean who is widely regarded as the person who first used containers and built a shipping business around them. The book does a good job of detailing the history of the container including the initial struggles, the opposition of the longshoremen’s labor unions and the rise and fall of ports as they bet (or did not bet) on the economies of scale that were brought about by the container. One does get a sense by reading the book of how much of our global economy we owe to the changes brought about by containers.

So why only 3 stars? For one, I think the subject matter is interesting only to a narrow cross section of the population. Second, the book does drag quite a bit in places. The author does a great job of making the matter accessible, but he could have gone further. A certain pedantic nature does creep into the book and I felt some of the material could have been edited out of the book to trade off readability at the cost of scholarly completeness.

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