Many happy returns

Marketplace Staff Apr 25, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: I heard a great phrase a couple of years ago, during the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Somebody described a picture of Orville’s taking off on that first flight as “the moment of invention.”Great inventions can be like that. Amazingly complicated. Somehow brilliantly simple.Fifty years ago this week there was an invention far more simple than the airplane, but almost as revolutionary. Commentator and business historian John Steele Gordon explains.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Some great inventions are so mundane that they are largely ignored.

The stirrup, for instance, didn’t get to Europe from India until about the time of Charlemagne.

But the stirrup didn’t just make riding easier. It made the mounted armored knight — the tanks of the Middle Ages — possible, revolutionizing warfare and powering the feudal system.

Here’s another invention that is very nearly as boring as the stirrup and just as important, for it is in many ways the father of today’s globalized economy: the cargo container.

Much of the expense of freight used to be in “breaking bulk.” In other words, transferring cargo from one form of transportation to another. Hundreds of stevedores were often needed to unload a single ship.

But on April 26th, 1956, a refitted oil-tanker carried 58 shipping containers from Newark to Houston, the brainchild of a trucking-company owner named Malcolm McLean. These containers could be simply lifted off the ship by crane and placed on waiting flatcars or on trucks. In some cases the system reduced freight costs by as much as 94%.

There was a lot of infrastructure needed to make the new system fully operational, of course, and much union opposition to any changes in business as usual.

But the Vietnam War, with its immense shipping needs, gave the system a crucial boost. Soon, those ports and unions that adapted to the new system, such as Oakland and Port Elizabeth, flourished. Those that didn’t, such as Brooklyn, languished.

So today, when you pop a dinner into a microwave oven that costs less than a good meal at a restaurant, or talk on a cellphone that the phone company gave you to get you to use their service, you can thank “the box,” the utterly glamor-free shipping container that helped make it possible.

Think of it as an expression of entrepreneurial capitalism at its profit-seeking, society-serving best.

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