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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Marc Levinson
Princeton University Press, 2006
392 pp., $24.95

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Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World
Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World
Brian J. Cudahy
Fordham University Press, 2006
352 pp., $90.00

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William T. Bogart

The Tools of Trade

How container ships enabled an economic revolution.

On April 26, 1956, a ship named Ideal X set out from Port Newark bound for Houston. This voyage inaugurated the age of container shipping. Two new books recognize the 50th anniversary of this event by telling the story of container ships and their impact on the world.

The crucial individual in the development of container ships is Malcom McLean, who founded the Sea-Land Corporation that developed the Ideal X. The story goes that in 1937, a young McLean grew frustrated at the time it took for his truck to be unloaded and wondered why his trailer couldn't just be loaded onto the ship. Twenty years later, the first container ship debuted.

Marc Levinson's The Box and Brian Cudahy's Box Boats both begin with McLean and the Sea-Land Corporation, but they take very different paths from this common origin. The Box traces the development of container technology and its impact on labor relations, urban structure, manufacturing, and trade. It is easily accessible to a general audience and opens a fascinating window into the infrastructure of the modern world. Box Boats is written for someone who appreciates ships—the nautical equivalent of a trainspotter. The ideal reader appreciates detailed lists of ship names and dimensions, and is excited by a company adopting a livery and color scheme "wonderfully reminiscent of the letters 'PA' that once adorned ships of the Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, and the 'SL' that was long carried on the bow of Sea-Land vessels." (I would have preferred an approach like that of Noel Mostert in Supership, in which the author used various features of modern ships or ports as starting points for descriptions of how they developed from previous features.)

The maiden voyage of the Ideal X was an instant revolution. The costs of loading the cargo were $0.158 per ton, compared with $5.83 per ton for the typical cargo ship. These cost savings came along with extreme time savings, as the ship was loaded in fewer than eight hours, as compared with the ...

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