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The Box

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The Box

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

Princeton UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Standardized containers are the mechanism that made global shipping fast and cheap. Now, whose bright idea was that?

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


Happy fiftieth birthday to the shipping container, that unexciting, unglamorous cog in the wheels of commerce that just so happened to change the world. Most people might have ignored the import of the box during the past half-century, but economist Marc Levinson offers an insightful tale that will help you appreciate this oft-overlooked advancement. If it weren't for the container, Levinson argues persuasively, for good or ill, there could be no Wal-Mart and U.S. manufacturing jobs couldn't have migrated to China. This history lesson recounts the box inventor's quest and offers some subtle perspective for businesspeople struggling to foretell the future. At times, Levinson bogs down in the details of 1950s labor relations, but his work mostly moves quickly through the highs and lows of the container's story. getAbstract recommends this revealing tale to anyone in the global economy.


Clearing the Way for Global Trade

A half-century ago, a consumer who went to the store saw shelves lined with goods made close to home. No shirts from the Dominican Republic, no toys from China, no fish from Costa Rica, no beer from Germany. Moving freight long distances was just too expensive. Indeed, the United States' international trade steadily dwindled from 1930 to 1960. That all changed on April 26, 1956, when a crane loaded the first experimental shipping container onto a ship in Newark, New Jersey. The container's popularity and usefulness have exploded in ensuing decades, as the unglamorous box transformed the worlds of shipping and international trade, and even the consumer economy.

Before the box, China wasn't a manufacturing hub and U.S. companies didn't outsource their manufacturing to lower-cost countries. In today's post-box retail environment, finding a consumer product made in the U.S. is a challenge. Huge retailers like Wal-Mart demand that suppliers make their products in China. The container's rise shifted the geography of the world's economy. Bustling ports in New York City shrank as new ports in New Jersey built container cranes and grabbed business...

About the Author

Marc Levinson is an economist in New York and author of three previous books, including The Economist Guide to Financial Markets and Beyond Free Markets: The Revival of Activist Economics. He has worked at The Economist, Newsweek and the Journal of Commerce.

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