In a box, on a boat, on a train

They’re noisy, they’re endless, they’re trains of flatcars loaded with shipping containers. If you live near an ocean-going seaport, you’ve seen them fill acres of space like giant stacks of cordwood. Or towering precariously on the deck of a freighter.

Bet you never thought of this, though: how the entire world, it seems, uses containers of these precise dimensions.

Well, there’s a story behind it. The modern shipping container didn’t just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology.

It required years of high-stakes bargaining with organized labor (because stevedores were part of powerful longshoremen’s unions who stood to lose jobs ). And delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship.

Ultimately, it was the logistics of supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam that persuade the world of the container’s potential.

The tale is told in a fascinating book from Princeton University Press titled The Box by Marc Levinson. Seems so simple today, seems inevitable. Yet it’s safe to say that shipping containers made modern commerce possible, and “globalization” inevitable.