Recently, when Sun Microsystems (NASD: SUNW) launched its datacenter in a box, it was more than just a little symbolic that the box happened to be a shipping container. Servers and PCs have long been called 'boxes', and their makers 'boxmakers', but the shipping container, completely standardized, unchanged in decades, is the ultimate old-economy box.
The message: infrastructure is well on its way to becoming commoditized and standardized. Sun's new CEO is really into standards. Here's a blog post he wrote about the standardized rail gauge. And when the company launched this product, Schwartz made a note that the shipping container is one of the oldest universal standards we have. It's true; you see the same ones rumbling by on a train as you see leaving New York looking at some ugly industrial parks in New Jersey. There's no doubt that when people agree on a standard that anyone can build, the friction of commerce melts away.
But how did the standardized shipping container emerge? It's not very pretty Turns out there's a whole book on the subject, which fits well with a certain genre of modern non-fiction: explain a seemingly boring, inanimate object appear to be shockingly crucial to world history. Tomes on the pencil and salt fit into this category as well.
Fortunately, Educated Guesswork has a nice chunk of the shipping container book:
These concerns were unrepresented when Marad's two export committees held their first meetings on successive days in November 1958. Neither Pan-Atlantic nor Matson was seeking government construction subsidies, so the only two companies actually operating containerships in 1958 were not invited to join in the process of setting standards for the industry they were creating.
Controversy arose almost immediately. After much debate, the dimension committee agreed to define a "family" of acceptable container sizes, not just a single size. It voted unanimously that 8 feet should be the standard width, despite the fact that some European railroads could not carry loads wider than 7 feet; the committee would "have to be guided mainly by domestic requirements, with the hope that foreign practice would gradually conform to our standards." Then the committee took up container heights. Some maritime industry representatives favored containers 8 feet tall. Trucking industry officials, who were observers without a vote, argued that 8 1/2-foot-tall boxes would let customers squeeze more cargo into each container and allow room for forklifts to work inside. The committee finally agreed that containers should be no more than 8 1/2 feet high but could be less. Length was a tougher issue still. The diversity of containers in use or on order presented a serious operational problem: while a short container could be stacked atop a longer one, its weight would not rest upon the longer one's loadbearing steel corner posts. To support a shorter container above, the bottom container wold not rest upon the longer one's load-bearing steel corner posts. To support a shorter container above, the bottom container would require either steel posts along its sides or thick, load-bearing walls. More posts or thicker walls, though would increase weight and reduce interior space, making the container more costly to use. The length question was deferred.
The excerpt goes on much longer, and remember there's a whole book on the subject.
It just makes us appreciate that much more how hard it must be to agree upon modern technology standards, like new wireless protocols.