A humble metal box measuring just 20 feet or 40 feet by 8 feet, the shipping container has changed the world.
It helped usher in globalization, deliver bananas that taste fresh despite being picked weeks before, and provide the ability for companies to have a truly international supply chain.
As Soren Skou, chief executive of Maersk Line, the Danish shipping company that has come to lead the container industry, says: "When you look at the inventions or innovations of the last 100 years … this really low-tech invention of the container has done more for global trade than anything else."
Maersk Line's owner, Copenhagen-based AP Moller-Maersk Group, is a fascinating company.
Controlled by the same Danish family for more than a century, it has long had a reputation for its secrecy as much as for its power. But the current CEO, Nils Andersen, has opened up the company to an unprecedented extent.
A new book, "Creating Global Opportunities: Maersk Line in Containerisation 1973-2013" by Chris Jephson, a former Maersk senior executive, and Henning Morgen, a company historian, can be seen as part of that effort. It is published by
Any attempt to shed light on such a remarkable but reticent company is to be welcomed. The story behind Maersk is certainly a rich one even if this book is not the first about the container industry.
Although very successful in the first part of the 20th century, it was slow to catch on to the appeal of containers when they took off in the late 1950s and 1960s. This book is useful in explaining the delay.
For more than a decade Maersk was just one of many, mostly family-controlled operations in an industry plagued almost from the start by overcapacity and companies building ever-larger ships.
The book has plenty of nuggets hinting at the reasons behind Maersk's success despite the slow start.
In 1978 an advertising agency was asked to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Maersk Line's services between the U.S. and Southeast Asia.
Maersk McKinney Moller, the longtime CEO and company figurehead, watched the video, thanked the people involved — then shelved it. Instead, he sent a personal letter to each top customer because it was more in keeping with what his father would have wanted.
But this is not the book a company of Maersk's stature, or an industry as important as container shipping, deserves. Too often it is obvious that it is written by people from the industry.
The text is heavy with acronyms, dry with detail and seemingly paralyzed by its exclusive access to Maersk's vast archives. The retirement of McKinney Moller as CEO is accorded part of a sentence, only to be succeeded by 10 paragraphs of numbing detail about the nascent South American business.
The narrative races forward in time, only to then jerk back dizzyingly to the past. Some terms are explained, others not. Endless executives are introduced but the concept of "partners" — the senior managers who ran Maersk — is never clarified.
Meetings and documents are gone through in detail but proper analysis of underlying events is missing.
How did Maersk, at least five years late in starting to use containers, catch up with and overtake the rest of the industry?
Deals such as the 1999 purchase of Sea-Land and the 2005 acquisition of P&O NedLloyd are part of the answer. But even then the most poignant line belongs to McKinney Moller, who tells an executive that he sees mergers and acquisitions as "a kind of disease you saw in any other industry."
"Creating Global Opportunities" may well appeal to those involved in shipping and keen to know more about one of its most impressive companies.
But more general readers would do better to read Marc Levinson's excellent book, "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger," published in 2008 by Princeton University Press.