Boxes

Boxes

Copyright 2006, Traffic World, Inc.

From steam engine to jet engine, the innovations that truly have changed transportation and trade are few and far between. More often, change comes in smaller steps and the greatest upheavals in transport have been become evident only after years of common use and of reflection.

We''ve seen splashy ideas come and go and then come back again with not much to show for them, while the real innovations have proceeded more quietly yet more definitively to change the world around us.

That''s certainly been the case with containerization, Malcom McLean''s seemingly simple strategy for transporting goods that has reverberated across the maritime world and the global economy in the 50 years since the one-time trucking industry executive boxed up his idea and floated it across a sea of change.

McLean''s idea was not a new technology and not even an invention - containerization had already been done in various ways, and let''s be clear here, we are talking about a metal box, after all. But it was a new way of looking at a long and well-established process, of re-imagining a very familiar world in an entirely new way.

The innovation is beautifully explored in a new book, "The Box That Changed the World" by Arthur Donovan and Joseph Bonney, which dives into McLean''s method in its simplicity, its operational complexity and its enormous impact on world trade.

Produced by The Journal of Commerce and Commonwealth Business Media, which is also the parent of Traffic World, the book is an artful and authoritative work and an important contribution to the broader history of transportation. In doing that, Donovan and Bonney take the story - and much of it is a good yarn - beyond its historical dimensions and suggest a lot about where transportation is going by going full-speed at the economic implications of shipping industry innovation.

Any book with a chapter titled "The Box and Adam Smith" has a firm grip on both sides of transportation, its operating reality and its broader impact.

By thinking on a grand scale and upending the core methods for handling goods shipped through ports that really hadn''t changed much for generations - McLean changed the very economic scales that measured the transportation of goods. And changing the underlying economics of trade changed trade itself, making it possible to move goods, as the book says, from Boston to Bombay.

It''s an innovation felt in the clothes we wear, in the appliances we buy and in the long strings of double-stacked trains pushing out of Southern California and into the American heartland.

"Containerization''s impact on the global economy has been enormous, even though the core innovation itself appears to be so simple that it hardly deserves to be called a new technology," Donovan and Bonney write.

Of course, new technologies come and go. It takes something more to stick around, and still more to have an impact. Real innovation is here to stay, and sometimes in comes in a box.