The NS Savannah is one of the most glorious dead-ends in history. A nuclear cargo ship and the spawn of Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, it appeared to be the harbinger of a brilliant future.
But it was expensive to operate and carried too little cargo for its size. Most important, it carried break bulk cargo that was loaded and unloaded the old-fashioned way: by cranes, hooks, and sweating stevedores. The Savannah was solving the wrong problem. We didn’t need a nuclear powered old-school steamer (Hey! Let’s take a crappy old thing and strap a nuclear reactor on it! Then it will be freakin’ awesome!). What we needed was a new system for managing freight.
As it happened, it was at this same time that Malcolm McLean truly was revolutionizing shipping with his intermodal shipping containers. The results were spectacular. It’s Malcolm McLean that made it possible for Chinese factories to extrude every single thing you touched in the last 24 hours. You can read the full story in this book, or you can do what I did and read this long book review. I won’t tell a soul that you didn’t actually read the whole book.
Containerization is such a powerful idea that it continues to ramify in every direction. Consider computing. From break bulk personal computers, we have started to migrate to the data centers that provide cloud services. Now Microsoft is breaking these data centers into shipping container units that can be moved and reconfigured in a jiffy.
I’m reminded of how subcellular containers are among the great advances that the eukaryotic cells in our body have over bacteria. The same is true of the virtual compartments afforded by internet-mediated communication. Fast-forming internet groups are social containers that permit chemistry to happen that would otherwise be too diluted by the masses. This will lead to vastly more complex forms of self-organization. It’s fun to watch.