Father of the shipping container passes

Father of the shipping container passes

When I began this blog two years ago, my first post was about the passing of Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution. Mr. Borlaug’s research created varieties of wheat, maize and rice that helped feed literally hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people, including the pre-reform People’s Republic of China.

Mr. Borlaug’s inventions produced a great deal of good for the world – fewer starving children strikes me as quite good – but his detractors argued that cheap plentiful food was a bad thing. Too much food would lead to too many people, and Gaia must be saved. Their compassion only extended to mankind in the abstract. I guess some people are never happy.

Now today a coworker sends me a fascinating article on the passing of Keith Tantlinger, the inventor of the modern shipping container. While Malcom McLean usually gets most of the credit for moving the world to containerization, Mr. Tantlinger was the man who actually designed the containers themselves. If there is one item that made “Made in China” possible, the shipping container is it.

Here is his obituary and here’s the blog post sent by my coworker.

I don’t know if Mr. Tantlinger knew he was creating technology that would truly change the world, enabling the export led growth that allowed so much of Asia to crawl out of miserable poverty in such a short period of time. That change allows me and millions of other consumers around the developed world to enjoy inexpensive imported products that would be priced out of the market if they were Made in America. Indeed, many of these products would never have been brought to market, as the initial investment in tooling would have been prohibitively expensive. Anyone up for a $2500 iPhone?

I know what the pessimist side will say, international trade has cost American jobs. I can probably find a thousand economists on either side of this argument, but my first hand impression having done business in emerging markets like Mexico, Eastern Europe and China is this – economic growth is a good thing and not a zero sum game. The Czech Republic right after the fall of communism desperately needed economic growth to recover from the damage done by the previous regime. Should we have refused to trade with the Czechs? What would have happened had there been no blossoming of the export sector? I can’t think of any alternate scenario with a happy ending.

I could write for days on why American industry is or is not competitive or why you should or should not source in China. I will agree that there is always a cost to every transaction (there is a benefit too), and sometimes that cost is measured in manufacturing jobs lost to foreign competition. I will agree that “free trade” with China is a stacked deck. But billions of people are benefiting from global trade and the USA has seen its ship rise right along with everyone else. None of this would have happened without containerized freight.

So thank you Mr. Tantlinger, may you rest in peace. Those of us in the China supply chain management game wouldn’t be here without you.

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