Box, Happy 50th Birthday

containershipI think that globalization could as well be called “Americanization.” Too many components that go to make up the modern globalized world are labeled “Invented in America,” from the Internet to the shipping container. Chances are that you have not heard of Malcolm McLean. Yet, his innovation has profoundly shaped the globalized world we live in. A trucker by profession, his insight was that the truck trailer is a container that would reduce the cost of shipping. That was more than 50 years ago.

Yesterday, the use of shipping container celebrated its 50th birthday. The first container ship sailed from Port Newark to Texas on the 26th of April, 1956. As the Spiegel article of Nov 2005 The Box That Makes the World Go Round notes: “More than 3,500 cargo ships are sailing the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans today. They are loaded down with about 15 million containers. Like beads lined up on a necklace, these huge vessels ply their transcontinental routes.”

The world is made up of a few fundamental big ideas. One of the big ideas is “standardization” which manifests itself in a variety of ways, from little standardized bits of interchangeable hardware (such as nuts and bolts which make manufactured goods cheap) to standards such as the Internet Protocol (which makes communications cheap.) Without standardization the world would be a much poorer place. For India’s economic development, India has to adopt standards, if not actually evolve some standards where they don’t exist. The real power of markets depends on standards.

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “Box, Happy 50th Birthday”

  1. I think that globalization could as well be called “Americanization.”

    Oh, no! Just when I was entertaining thoughts of going abroad, now another 11,000,000 persons will be actively seeking to flay me alive and impale me on an immense satay stick.

    My dear fellow, culture is merely value-addition. If I had my way, all people who spoke of preserving “the national culture” would be savagely elemocompunctactulated.* Culture, and technique, are living things, more verb than noun, partaking of the character of even the humblest exponents. The Indian manager who brought Taylorism to India, whoever he(?) was, had to effectively re-invent Taylorism in order to make it “work” there. As for the tangible artifacts like the port container, they were made possible by the incremental contibutions of lakhs** of engineers around the world.

    Many of the important business and industrial practices of international commerce and capital flows may well have reached their present state of development in the United States, but their very importation to other nations, let alone their prior development, are accomplishments–and sins–belonging to other societies.

    *elemocompunctactulation: ritual punishment for ancient Uighur Nestorian heretics, c.7th cent. CE. It involved stripping the convicted miscreant naked, coating him with Yak snot, dusting him with desicated onion flakes, and scrubbing him clean with twenty ill-tempered Amur tigers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “elemocompunctactulation” was first used by the English explorer Mountstuart Elphinstone in his celebrated monograph, An Amidiversion on the Varieties of Ungulate Snots, Middlesex, 1821.

    ** lakh = 100,000


  2. I agree that Standardization reduces cost. However, standardization has tendency to suffocate innovation. As an example, big companies (like Walmart) bring standardization in retailing, which translates into reducing cost. However, it also has its other side where other smaller innovative businesses loose their identity. I am not against big corporations or standardization for that matter however an effort should be made to ensure it does not kill innovation.


  3. umm .. standardization is a good thing. anything else you have to say here?

    this post exemplifies your thinking. you atleast ought to back this up with some facts or practical applications. do you see something specific, yet significant and important happening in india that lacks standards? Can you propose what can you do to change it? and can you draw parallels from it and see if it can be applied elsewhere?

    this form of ranting is vanity!!


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