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The Box

How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

By Marc Levinson
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  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
Synopsis

The Box (2006) tells the tale of modern transportation’s poster child, the container, and how it revolutionized the shipping industry and enabled globalization. These blinks will take you on a detailed journey through this seemingly simple but revolutionary change in global systems of trade.

Key idea 1 of 11

It’s not containers themselves that are key, but how they’ve been used.

Have you ever thought about all the different places you’ve seen shipping containers? On trains, trucks and ships; some are even retrofitted to become people’s homes! But there's more to these ubiquitous industrial objects than meets the eye.

That’s because the container isn’t just a box, but the core of an extraordinarily system that transports goods all over the world at unbeatably low prices.

On April 26, 1958, when the first 58 containers ever to be launched shipped from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston, Texas, nobody could’ve predicted the world-changing impact they would have. But today, the incredible speed with which containers load and unload has cut transportation costs so drastically that it’s the go-to solution for practically every company.

For instance, in 1961, before international container use, ocean freight costs alone comprised 12 percent of the costs of US exports and 10 percent of those for imports. This expense, coupled with taxes and other transportation-related costs, meant that international trade was rarely profitable.

In fact, freight handling at ports used to be a major expense, but containers and the level of automation they make possible have greatly reduced these costs. Containers have also completely transformed the face of manufacturing: small, local operations have given way to huge companies that buy and sell globally, which has also enabled a reduction in consumer prices.

The container fundamentally altered the scale at which goods are traded. The companies that employed them became larger, better organized and more reliable, and it was all due to the container’s place in a highly efficient system of perfectly fitting components.

For instance, a 25-ton container of coffee at a factory in Malaysia can travel 9,000 miles to Los Angeles in just 16 days. From there, it can board a train to Chicago and then a truck to Cincinnati for a total trip of 11,000 miles in a mere 22 days. That’s 500 miles a day and the total cost of shipping is less than a single first-class plane ticket.

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