New: Book Report: The Box

It's a book about cargo boxes. You know, intermodal freight containers. That was enough to get me to read the book. There's interesting stuff in here for economists, policy wonks, labor history folks, ... One thing that was missing was illustrations and photos--there are passing references to some physical designs for brackets, cranes, and joins that didn't work out. Oh well, what is in here is plenty interesting.

Regulation-haters will find plenty to point out here. Freight transport was covered with layers of regulation and protectionism. If you come up with a more efficient way to ship stuff, you might not be allowed to use it.

Some railroads sought to take advantage of the container not simply by lowering rates, but by changing the way they charged shippers. Since the onset of federal regulation in the 1880s, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) had held firm to the principle that each commodity required its own rate, which of course was subject to ICC approval. With containers, though, the railroads were not handling commodities; the size and loaded weight of the container mattered far more than the contents. ... After four months of hearings in 1931, the commission ruled weight-based rates illegal. Although it found the container to be "a commendable piece of equipment," the commission said that the railroads could not charge less to carry a container than to carry the equivalent weight of the most expensive commodity inside the container. With that ruling, containers no longer made economic sense on the rails.


The ICC controlled almost every aspect of the business of common carriers--truckers whose services were on offer to the public. A common carrier could haul only commodities the ICC allowed it to haul, over ICC-approved routes, at ICC-approved rates. If a new firm wanted to begin service, of if an existing one wanted to serve a new route or carry a new commodity, it had to hire lawyers to plead its case at the commission. Any major change required hearings at which other truck lines and railroads had the opportunity to object.

In 1980, the ICC lost its rate-approval power, and things got smoother.

Shippers wanted to upgrade to use the new equipment, wanted to stop paying longshoremen. And few shippers wanted to share their savings with the longshoremen. This led to strikes. Those ports that got their act together early benefitted--because it turned out that the world didn't need as many ports in the container era. It took less time to load and unload ships, ships spent less time in ports, less ports were needed. Ports that deadlocked on their way to containerization lapsed into disuse. Previous labor wrangling had already led to bizarreness:

...a trucker delivering palletized cargo to a pier would have to remove each item from the pallet and place it on the dock. Longshoremen would then replace the items on the pallet for lowering into the hold, where other longshoremen would break down the pallet once more and stow each individual item&emdash;all at a cost so high that shippers knew not to send pallets in the first place.

When containers came along, the first reaction of some longshoremen was that there should be rules requiring that longshoremen unpack and re-pack each container. Before I read this book, I thought of Harry Bridges as heroic. Having read this book, I realize that I hadn't understood the scale of what he brought us. It's like he lifted us out of some kind of stone age.

Standards wonks might like the stories about how folks figured out which sizes of container to standardize on.

[Marad] voted unanimously that 8 feet should be the standard width, despite the fact that some European railroads could not carry loads wider than 7 feet; the committee would "have to be guided mainly by domestic requirements, with the hope that foreign practice would gradually conform to our standards."

So when I went to Japan and saw that they had smaller-sized cargo containers there, I shouldn't have been surprised. Determining standards for intermodal freight would affect maritime, rail, trucks--and these people weren't in the habit of talking to each other.

The history of shipping in SF bay shows up for a few paragraphs. how did Oakland get ahead of San Francisco?

Through the start of the 1960s, Oakland was a sleepy agricultural port one-third the size of Long Beach, Seattle, or Portland, and far smaller than San Francisco. Its waterfront was lined with industries&emdash;a dog food plant, a dry ice plant, a brake shoe factyory&emdash;that had long since ceased to be important port users. Oakland had almost no incoming traffic; typically, European ships would arrive at San Francisco, unload, and then sail across to Oakland to take on canned fruit, almonds, and walnuts for the voyage home. The Oakland Port Commission, a city agency, had issued its first revenue bonds in 1957 to repair a few old docks, but it had no grander plans. Then came an unexpected development. Officials in San Francisco, where Matson had based its container service to Hawaii, ignored Matson's request for a separate container terminal, because the city's port director through container shipping a passing fad. When Matson installed the world's first land-based container crane in 1959, it was built not in San Francisco, the West's greatest maritime center, but in Alameda, a small city within plain view of the Oakland docks.

Matson's operation focused the attention of Oakland port officials on container shipping. In early 1961, they learned of American-Hawaiian Steamship's application for government subsideies to build a fleet of large containerships. The vessels would run through the Panama Canal, mainly carrying fruit and vegetables from California canneries to East Coast markets. This was a natural cargo for Oakland to capture. Port director Dudley Frost and chief engineer Ben Nutter prepared two binders of facts and figures, added leather covers stamped "American-Hawaiian Steamship Company," and flew east in April 1961. Meetings with government and industry officials in Washington changed their plans. "Somebody said, 'Oh, forget those guys. They're no good. Go and see Sea-Land," Nutter recalled. "I said, 'Sea who?' " The cover on one of the binders was quickly replaced by one stamped "Sea-Land," and Frost and Nutter made their way to Port Newark. A Sea-Land executive stopped their presentation to inform them that it had already decided to run containerships from Newark to California. If they could offer a suitable site at a reasonable price, Sea-Land would establish its northern terminus at Oakland.

Oakland did more, too. They earned those At-At Walkers.

Part of the reason that Japanese electronics took off in the 70s? Because it was much harder for a shipping employee to filch small items from a cargo container, and cargo containers were on the rise in the 70s.

I learned a new shipping coinage. I'd already learned "Post-panamax", for cargo ships that are too big to fit through the Panama canal. "Malacca-max" is the author's word for a hypothetical cargo ship that's just barely big enough to fit through the Straits of Malacca. OK, I guess this book got kinda speculative towards the end. It's a fun read.

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Posted 2009-06-28