Just finished the book “Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World” by Brian Cudahy. It was an interesting and good book in many respects, but extremely frustrating in others. It really needed some diagrams and more pictures, as well as a little more discussion of how the global economy was affected by the development of the container ship. Towards the middle, the writing style and lack of diagrams or drawings both dragged it down a bit, so I am recommending the book with the advice to read Chapters 1-4 and 6, and then the others if you are really interested. There are many things covered very well, and discussion about the network effects of a very simple (from a technical standpoint) innovation goes to the heart of what innovation really means. So on a quality scale the book is 8/10, mainly for a lack of pictures or diagrams, but the subject matter rates a 10/10 on the importance scale. Also there are some very interesting examples of open-source methodologies, and the advantages of technology unencumbered by patent restrictions.
My favorite quote:
Measured against twentieth-century innovations in fields such as electronics or nuclear medicine, a thirty-five-foot box that can be securely stacked atop similar boxes and that can be lifted by a crane hardly seems like cutting edge technology. But it was,
First, my major frustration: if ever a book really need some drawings and diagrams to describe it’s subject matter, this was it. Cudahy goes on and on describing in words what could have been made extremely clear with a diagram or drawing. A chart showing the different classes of boats would have been helpful, as well as a simple blocking/stacking diagram showing how containers fit into some of the boats he describes. The photo of the corner casting, for example doesn’t explain how it works, that is left to the text.
The book does describe how the new container ships innovated and provided an order of magnitude improvement in the economics of sea-borne cargo, especially compared to traditional bulk-break cargo ships. The book follows the fortunes of Malcom McLean, the pioneer of container ship technology, and his company’s history as a case study. There is plenty of information here, especially interesting was how the initial container ships built upon existing ship standards, which in turn had their origins in the build-up of the merchant marine which was required for the Second World War. The role of modularity in achieving break-through economy, even when adding substantially to the weight and size of the cargo itself is discussed and described. Very interesting would have been diagrams comparing a bulk-break cargo ship and a container ship, with metrics comparing size and weight of both. Also, the numerous ship conversions described in the book could have been assisted by drawings or diagrams.
The book is heavy on the how, meaning how in an instrumental sense. Those expecting a description of how the container ship affected the global economy, in a more interaction-of-different-systems approach will be a little disappointed. In his discussion of labor issues that arose in different parts of the world, this more systemic/holistic approach is started, but not taken to its logical conclusion. The labor issue was never a big issue in USA, as Malcom McLean negotiated very adeptly with the unions in USA, although less adeptly with unions in some other countries.
Especially significant is the description of the economics of the container ship itself, compared to traditional bulk-break cargo ships, and the importance of containers becoming a de facto standard, assisted by free source/open source methodology:
Measured against twentieth-century innovations in fields such as electronics or nuclear medicine, a thirty-five-foot box that can be securely stacked atop similar boxes and that can be lifted by a crane hardly seems like cutting edge technology. But it was, and Malcolm McLean’s foresight, in 1963, in freely forgoing the patent rights that his company held for the corner casting was an important factor in allowing the adoption of standards that permitted the extraordinary degree of interchangeability that remains a hallmark of the contemporary container ship industry. (page 40)
Modularity only works if it is a standard; standards spread when they are unencumbered. Simple solutions that take into account the totality of their effects on different systems are cutting edge technology.