The Box That Changed the World

It is 40 feet long, 8.5 or 9.5 feet high, and eight feet wide. It carries up to 29 tons in its 2,000 cubic feet of recommended available space – goods worth roughly $500,000 (or more) when sold at retail. It, and what it carries, can be transported in a month anywhere in the world where there are suitable harbors, railways, locomotives, flatcars, truck tractors, diesel fuel, and roads.

It is the modern cargo container, and it is able to move non-fragile, non-perishable goods from any modern factory with a loading dock to any modern warehouse anywhere in the world for about 1% of retail value. Indeed, it can be transported for a marginal cost of perhaps $5,000 – less than the price of a first-class airplane ticket, as Marc Levinson, author of the excellent The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, puts it.

All of this has happened since 1960 or so. Back then, the costs of international trans-ocean shipment for most commodities could easily amount to between 10% and 20% of retail value. The cargo container has changed everything.

When my family bought a German-made washing machine from a warehouse store in San Leandro, California, more of its cost was absorbed in the ten minutes the saleswoman spent telling us about it than in the entire journey from the factory in Schorndorf, Germany, to the loading dock in San Leandro, or in forklifting it from the loading