Innovation, Disruption, and Progress: What Do Vaccines, Software, and Shipping Containers Have in Common?

You never know where the next shipping container will come from.

This August 9 Bill Gates dispatch on the multi-modal shipping revolution is a must read, which begins with this:

In the second half of the twentieth century, an innovation came along that would transform the way the world did business. At first, some people wrote it off as a fad. Others kept at it, convinced that it was going to have a huge impact. Some of the companies that made big bets on this tool were very successful, while others ended up going under. Ultimately, it helped accelerate the globalization that had already been under way for centuries.

I’m not talking about software. I’m talking about the shipping industry, and in particular an innovation you might not have thought much about: the shipping container. It is the subject of an excellent book I read this summer called The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by a former Economist editor named Marc Levinson. The Box is mostly about globalization, but there is also a larger story here that touches on business and philanthropy more broadly.

For centuries, cargo ships were loaded and unloaded by hand, one crate at a time. Each crate might have a different destination, which made the whole process slow and expensive. In 1956, a trucking magnate named Malcolm McLean had a clever idea: Instead of unloading a trailer’s worth of crates onto a ship, why not put the whole trailer on the ship?

It was the beginning of a revolution in the way goods move around the world. Shipping lines ordered bigger and bigger ships to accommodate the aluminum boxes that soon became the standard container. Port cities from New York to Singapore raced to modernize their facilities to accommodate the larger ships.

Do read Bill's complete review, then read The Box!