Book Review: The Box - How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson


Box cover showing a blueprint of a shipping container.

In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. 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 containerization brought about.

Just how interesting could a book about boxes be? Turns out, pretty interesting!

It's a story of big business, trade-unions, globalisation, and the relentless drive for efficiency. Being an economics book, it focuses mostly on the economic side of things - with only a few brief diversions into the other impacts the invention had.

One of the fascinating things it reveals is that no-one knows anything. Everyone made huge mistakes - both in the public and private sector. Those who clearly saw the winds of change got brutally knocked off course when reality didn't meet prediction.

It is a love-letter to standards. Although the process used to define them is revealed to be hopelessly flawed. But once standards dominate, it leads to repeatable actions which can be used to ruthlessly drive down costs. That's mostly positive if you're shipping goods - but decidedly less so if you are reliant on complexity to keep your job. It opens up new opportunities in impoverished countries - but also floods those markets with destabilisingly cheap goods.

But, ultimately, the tale of how we came to be able to cheaply and securely move items around the world is an interesting one.

I think the book would have benefited from more illustrations. It is tedious to read pages of prose where a couple of graphs would have been better at showing the data. Similarly, there are no photos - which means we have to try and determine what things look like from their descriptions.


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