The Box

Bookshelf: The Box

 

Container ship entering the Kiel Canal
Container ship entering the Kiel Canal

I really, really, really wanted to like this book. I was looking forward to reading it immensely. Why? It’s about shipping containers, see, and I’ve long had a fascination for container ships and everything about them since I read this article. When Tony and I were in Europe in August we purposely drove across the Kiel Canal, and spent a happy hour watching a parade of massive vessels chug past us almost within touching distance. When a container ship appeared in the distance, I almost died of joy.

The Box
The Box

So, The Box. Marc Levinson has undertaken to write a history of the containerisation of shipping. Malcom MacLean, the entrepreneurial genius who did much to pioneer the use of containers to transport cargo, is a central figure in the early parts of the book. The accounts of his business acumen, willingness to take incredible risks, and eye for a deal were fascinating to me. MacLean saw things as large systems – he was a true big-picture visionary – and recognised that the cost of shipping an item did not begin and end at the docks, but included all the costs of getting it from door to door.

Frustratingly, historical statstics (which I love) quantifying the benefit of containerisation are very hard to come by and to aggregate, so I can’t give you a punchy one-liner summarising the book like “the introduction of container ships reduced the cost of shipping by 200%” or something. Suffice it to say it’s completely changed the way goods move around the world, and in fact made it possible for imports and exports to become significant contributors to the global economy.

I struggled a lot with the discussion of economics that inevitably arises when a subject like this is discussed, as it isn’t a field that interests me much (too vague and subjective, plus just baffling to me for the most part). Levinson is a former editor of The Economist and has made something of a career of explaining complex economic ideas to peasants like me, so I felt like a failure for not being gripped by these sections of the book. Tony used to run a motor spares and imports business in Botswana, and I am far more fascinated by his stories about travelling to the UK and Japan to select items to load in containers for shipping to Richards Bay, and then overland transport to the shop in Gaborone. Entire motor cars, for example, are suspended with chains from the ceiling of the container. The value of the cargoes that these vessels transport is mind-boggling.

While reading, I also fought my intense annoyance towards the unionised dock workers who resisted containerisation with every means they could muster. The fact that containerisation revealed just how lazy and inefficient (my unsympathetic precis) the longshoremen were in the 1950’s and succeeding decades led to protests, stay-aways, and refusals to work on ships using the new system. Some unions even managed to arrive at agreements where workers would unpack and repack cargo simply to have something to do, or take four hour tea breaks in an eight hour shift. Ultimately containerisation led to huge increases in shipping volumes, and even though a crane could now do in minutes what a crew of dock workers could do in a day, jobs requring higher skill levels were created, and low-skill jobs paying high wages were destroyed. Millions of manufacturing jobs were also created. That’s progress.

Tony checking out a small container ship (taken with my fisheye)
Tony checking out a small container ship (taken with my fisheye)

Some lovely nuggets I did pick up about container ships related to the terms used to describe their sizes. You’ve probably (even if you know nothing about ships) heard the term Panamax, which refers to the largest vessel that can fit through the Panama Canal. There are also Suezmax and Seawaymax vessels, applicable to the Suez Canal and Saint Lawrence Seaway in North America (allowing ship traffic to move between the North Atlantic and Great Lakes). Capesize vessels are larger than Panamax and Suezmax, and have to come round the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn in their transit of the world’s oceans. Malaccamax is the largest class of ship capable of fitting through the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Sumatra. An example of what one of these magnificent monsters looks like can be seen here. They are nearly half a kilometre long!

This isn’t a light read. I admit that I slogged through it and I don’t think it’s really for the lay reader unless you have an intense interest in economics or labour law. It’s well footnoted and there is an extensive further reading and sources list at the end of the book. There’s a more in depth review of the book here from someone who knows more economics than I do.

There’s an interview with Levinson here and a video here. You can also read a sample chapter of the book.

You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, here if you’re overseas, and for your Kindle go here.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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