Before the internet, one of the most rapid changes to the global economy and trade was wrought by something so blatantly useful that it is hard to imagine a struggle to get it adopted: the shipping container. In the early 1960s, before the standard container became ubiquitous, freight costs were I0 per cent of the value of US imports, about the same barrier to trade as the average official government import tariff. Yet in a journey that went halfway round the world, half of those costs could be incurred in two ten-mile movements through the ports at either end. The predominant ‘break-bulk’ method, where each shipment was individually split up into loads that could be handled by a team of dockers, was vastly complex and labour-intensive. Ships could take weeks or months to load, as a huge variety of cargoes of different weights, shapes and sizes had to be stacked together by hand. Indeed, one of the most unreliable aspects of such a labour-intensive process was the labour. Ports, like mines, were frequently seething pits of industrial unrest. Irregular work on one side combined with what was often a tight-knit, well - organized labour community on the other.
In 1956, loading break-bulk cargo cost $5.83 per ton. The entrepreneurial genius who saw the possibilities for standardized container shipping, Malcolm McLean, floated his first containerized ship in that year and claimed to be able to shift cargo for 15.8 cents a ton. Boxes of the same size that could be loaded by crane and neatly stacked were much faster to load. Moreover, carrying cargo in a standard container would allow it to be shifted between truck, train and ship without having to be repacked each time.
But between McLean’s container and the standardization of the global market were an array of formidable obstacles. They began at home in the US with the official Interstate Commerce Commission, which could prevent price competition by setting rates for freight haulage by route and commodity, and the powerful International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) labour union. More broadly, the biggest hurdle was achieving what economists call ‘network effects’: the benefit of a standard technology rises exponentially as more people use it. To dominate world trade, containers had to be easily interchangeable between different shipping lines, ports, trucks and railcars. And to maximize efficiency, they all needed to be the same size. The adoption of a network technology often involves overcoming the resistance of those who are heavily invested in the old system. And while the efficiency gains are clear to see, there are very obvious losers as well as winners. For containerization, perhaps the most spectacular example was the demise of New York City as a port.
In the early I950s, New York handled a third of US seaborne trade in manufactured goods. But it was woefully inefficient, even with existing break-bulk technology: 283 piers, 98 of which were able to handle ocean-going ships, jutted out into the river from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Trucks bound‘ for the docks had to fiive through the crowded, narrow streets of Manhattan, wait for an hour or two before even entering a pier, and then undergo a laborious two-stage process in which the goods foot were fithr unloaded into a transit shed and then loaded onto a ship. ‘Public loader’ work gangs held exclusive rights to load and unload on a particular pier, a power in effect granted by the ILA, which enforced its monopoly with sabotage and violence against than competitors. The ILA fought ferociously against containerization, correctly foreseeing that it would destroy their privileged position as bandits controlling the mountain pass. On this occasion, bypassing them simply involved going across the river. A container port was built in New Jersey, where a 1500-foot wharf allowed ships to dock parallel to shore and containers to be lified on and off by crane. Between 1963 - 4 and 1975 - 6, the number of days worked by longshoremen in Manhattan went from 1.4 million to 127,041.
Containers rapidly captured the transatlantic market, and then the growing trade with Asia. The effect of containerization is hard to see immediately in freight rates, since the oil price hikes of the 1970s kept them high, but the speed with which shippers adopted; containerization made it clear it brought big benefits of efficiency and cost. The extraordinary growth of the Asian tiger economies of Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, which based their development strategy on exports, was greatly helped by the container trade that quickly built up between the US and east Asia. Ocean-borne exports from South Korea were 2.9 million tons in 1969 and 6 million in 1973, and its exports to the US tripled.
But the new technology did not get adopted all on its own. It needed a couple of pushes from government - both, as it happens, largely to do with the military. As far as the ships were concerned, the same link between the merchant and military navy that had inspired the Navigation Acts in seventeenth-century England endured into twentieth-century America. The government's first helping hand was to give a spur to the system by adopting it to transport military cargo. The US armed forces, seeing the efficiency of the system, started contracting McLean’s company Pan-Atlantic, later renamed Sea-land, to carry equipment to the quarter of a million American soldiers stationed in Western Europe. One of the few benefits of America's misadventure in Vietnam was a rapid expansion of containerization. Because war involves massive movements of men and material, it is often armies that pioneer new techniques in supply chains.
The government’s other role was in banging heads together sufficiently to get all companies to accept the same size container. Standard sizes were essential to deliver the economies of scale that came from interchangeability - which, as far as the military was concerned, was vital if the ships had to be commandeered in case war broke out. This was a significant problem to overcome, not least because all the companies that had started using the container had settled on different sizes. Pan- Atlantic used 35- foot containers, because that was the maximum size allowed on the highways in its home base in New Jersey. Another of the big shipping companies, Matson Navigation, used a 24-foot container since its biggest trade was in canned pineapple from Hawaii, and a container bigger than that would have been too heavy for a crane to lift. Grace Line, which largely traded with Latin America, used a foot container that was easier to truck around winding mountain roads.
Establishing a US standard and then getting it adopted internationally took more than a decade. Indeed, not only did the US Maritime Administration have to mediate in these rivalries but also to fight its own turf battles with the American Standards Association, an agency set up by the private sector. The matter was settled by using the power of federal money: the Federal Maritime Board (FMB), which handed out to public subsidies for shipbuilding, decreed that only the 8 x 8-foot containers in the lengths of l0, 20, 30 or 40 feet would be eligible for handouts.
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