Science Talk

How Cargo Containers Shrank the World and Transformed Trade; and Smart Skylights

In this episode, Maritime History Professor Arthur Donovan talks about cargo containerization and how it transformed world markets. And architect Paul Topogna discusses skylights that change shape for more effective heating, cooling and UV control. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 30th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we are going to talk about incredibly simple technology—boxes and windows—but the box in question effectively shrank the world—it's the cargo container that goes seamlessly from rail to ship to truck. We'll talk with Arthur Donovan about that and the windows are the smartest ones I've ever seen and will soon [be] letting the light shine on lemurs at the Bronx Zoo. We'll talk to Paul Topogna about them. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

First up Arthur Donovan. He is the professor emeritus of Maritime History at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. He's also the coauthor of a book about the history of cargo containerization. Last week he lectured on that subject at the New York Public Library, Science, Industry and Business Branch. I went to his talk and then caught up with him at the library for a brief chat.

Steve: Professor Donovan, good to talk to you.

Donovan: Nice to see you too.

Steve: Tell us about—first of all, the name of the book is The Box That Changed the World—what is the box?

Donovan: The box is the standard shipping container, which is now used universally around the world in what we call intermodal transportation. That is to say, you can load up the box—a strong steel box—usually about eight and a half by eight and a half by 40 feet, and you can move it on a truck and, without unpacking it, you can put it on a ship and take it to a port and there it can be put on a railcar and it's only opened when it finally gets to its last destination.

Steve: And the box did not always exist though. Well, when did the box come about?

Donovan: Well! The box that we use today and refer to is really an adaptation of a standard truck trailer size. In fact its initial dimensions were set by road regulations on truck trailer size. But the box had to be built more strongly when it was decided to move it on ships where you have a lot of motion and it has to be attached firmly to the ship and it has to be stronger to be lifted and bear the ocean motion.

Steve: There is this fellow McLean who you talk about a lot—who was McLean and what's his role in this?

Donovan: Well! Malcom McLean was a very successful trucker from North Carolina who started in Maxton, North Carolina—his hometown—struggled through the depression, nursed his company through the war—his small trucking company—and then started expanding after the war. He moved very quickly and was based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at that time and extended his routes, and by the early 50s he was quite a national figure in trucking. He was, I think, the second largest trucking company along the East Coast and he was turning terrific profits. But for some reason, which I think I can identify, he thought that the future of trucking was not so good. He thought he could find a cheaper way to move his boxes and he decided that he would try and move them along the coast. In fact he first tried to get a railroad to carry them in what we call piggyback manner—that is to say a truck trailer still on its chassis, attached to a flat car on a railroad—but the railroads after the war had their own problems and they lacked the kind of flexibility he would have needed; and also they felt themselves to be competing directly with the trucking companies and they hoped to drive them off the field essentially. So the railroads were not interested in helping McLean. So the other option was to move to shipboard movement of trailers. And moving freight by sea is by far the most economical way to do it because you don't have to build the surface you traveling on. And so he made up his mind, and in 1954 he informed his Northeast sales staff that he was going to go into what came to be called "containerization". And he moved forward with great dispatch and in April 1956, he loaded the first ship he had prepared to carry containers at Port Newark, and it carried 58 boxes—if you refer to them, as he liked to say, always say, ‘loaded with paying cargo’—to Houston, Texas. Andthose boxes were put ashore in a couple of hours, in a few more hours the boxes waiting to be shipped to New York were loaded on board and he turned that ship around within a day.

Steve: And how was that different from what the previous experience had been with the kind of shore unloading and loading that you see in the movies like On the Waterfront?

Donovan: Right! The previous form of cargo handling was called "break bulk", because each item, each bag, barrel, box was handled and placed and shored up in the hold. Break-bulk shipping required anywhere from four to six days to load a standard size cargo ship, so it was the utilization of the capital asset you might say that was so impressive. The ship was earning at a much higher percentage of its life when it was carrying containers than when it was being loaded and unloaded break bulk.

Steve: Because with break bulk, what percent of the time is the ship actually moving cargo?

Donovan: Well, roughly 50%—I mean, give and take a little—but there is[its] spending about 50 percent of its time along side a dock, loading and unloading, and 50 percent of its time moving cargo, which is what the company is being paid for.

Steve: And with the containers it's more than 90 percent of the time that you're moving?

Donovan: Bulk part, yeah! Right! You are earning about 90 percent of the time, and that's earning to retire the capital cost of the big asset.

Steve: Talk for a minute about the year 1956 and how important it was because of this convergence of events that happened?

Donovan: This is a thought that came to me quite recently, and of course one is always intoxicated by one’s most recent ideas. I was noting that there were two major transportation anniversaries in 2006—50-year anniversaries. One was the anniversary of the first container ship voyage and the other quite unrelated never connected as far as I can tell was the fiftieth anniversary of the Federal Interstate Highway Act. But if you think of McLean's initiative in containerization as moving channels by other means why did he feel he had to move them by other means. He had been successful. Well, then I recalled that he once reported that his over-the-road costs had increased 50% in one year. Now if you connect to that to the crumbling state of the state highway system—as opposed to the nonexistent Federal Highway System—and the postwar reluctance to invest heavily in roads—which President Eisenhower addressed directly—maybe the two are linked. So I’m playing with the idea that the beginning of containerization and the passage of the Federal Interstate Highway Act are in fact intermittently related to the same cause: the decay of the existing road system.

Steve: Talk for just a moment about the reaction of one recipient. You talked about shipment of Scotch whisky that had come over from Scotland and the reaction of the recipients of that shipment at the distillery here in the U.S.

Donovan: Well! It was a Kentucky distiller who was also handling imported spirits and he was simply struck by the fact that prior to containerization, his shipments of Scotch were often broken into— partially destroyed—and they could just salvage a percentage—not a high percentage—of the shipment, for sale. They had to patch up what they received. There was a scene in On the Waterfront where you can see what was happening to shipments of Scotch which were much prized by the longshoremen. Then in 1956—the year in which Malcom McLean sent his first container ships to Northern Europe—this man wrote to McLean and said, "Our first shipment sent in a container arrived in perfect shape, ready for sale."What McLean did—I think he had an eye on this market, because he had his container ships stop at a port in Scotland just to pick up Scotch whisky. It wasn't any large order there but that was much appreciated by the spirits distributors in America.

Steve: And you also mentioned recently on the podcast—in an episode about beer science—one other things you mentioned in your talk was how the current availability of beers from all over the world is directly—and at a cheap price—is directly related to this form of shipment availability.

Donovan: All right! It used to be that you had local breweries and sometime for the big national brands, you'd have regional breweries—Budweiser and all—but you didn't move beer very far. You drank the national brand brewed nearby or the local brands. I really don't know what one did if one got hungry or thirsty for a British beer or the English beer, whatever. But with containerization, the cost of moving beer from anywhere to anywhere else around the world has fallen to a very small percentage of the final price. And so I think you can see this. My little experiment was to ask the salesman in the local beer bar what the cost was for beers from different places around the world and it turned out, you know, [the price for a] six-pack of standard beer was very similar, very close; and I also looked around and noted that they were not the stacks of standard beers that filled the beer barrel, but rather small quantities of hundreds of different beers. The variety is enormous. (Laughs) I'm not sure the variety of the beer is that great, but the variety of labels (laughs) is enormous, and it's because of the transportation cost. If you think of cost as the distance of transporting goods then cost has declined enormously. We live in a very small planet in terms of the cost of distance, not the linear measure of distance.

Steve: Well! One of the other figures you had was a 45-dollar pair of shoes costs 34 cents to ship.

Donovan: Right! Now that was ocean shipping—there is a little more added at each end. But even there, there is much higher efficiency in there, so the total cost is still in that bulk part.

Steve: The common culture of consumption is—I think—is how you put the result of the containers and what they've done to the worldwide markets.

Donovan: Well, yes! I mean we do have world production and world consumption, which I think means you never know where it's made and you never know where it's going to be used. In this sense I think that Malcom McLean's[Marshall McLuhan]'s notion of a global village has been extended, if you like, because he was talking mostly about media; but it has been extended to products and to production and, in this sense of globalization, globalization depends on containerization.

Steve: Fascinating subject, Dr. Donovan. Thanks very much.

Donovan: You are quite welcome.

Steve: By the way, during Donovan's talk, he put up a table of numbers of containers shipped to the U.S. in the year 2004 for various companies; and the leader, which will be no surprise, was Wal-Mart, which received—how many shipped containers? I'll give you a second to ponder that, while I tell you that Donovan's book, The Box That Changed the World was coauthored with Joseph Bonney, the editor of the Journal of Commerce. The book is available through that journal's Web site, And in 2004 Wal-Mart's imports filled 576,000 containers.

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1:A cow has been genetically modified to give strawberry-flavored milk.

Story number 2:Over 100 children had half their brains removed at Johns Hopkins between 1975 and 2001.

Story number 3:Astronomers have discovered an entirely new class of stellar explosion bigger than a nova, but smaller than a supernova.

And Story number 4:Consuming a high-fat diet can pose a heavy additional risk for users of the drug ecstasy.

We'll be back with the answer. But first the Bronx Zoo is renovating one of its classic old buildings—the Lion House—that used to contain—you guessed it, that’s right—lions and other big cats. For the last few decades however it's been used for office space with the big cats enjoying the outdoors. Now the building is being transformed into a new Madagascar exhibit. And a couple of weeks ago, a few journalists were invited on a site tour. I went on the tour, after which I spoke to one of the architects involved in the renovation, Paul Tapogna. Now the buildings will be totally green with geothermal heating and cooling, greywater storage and filtration bathrooms [and] other amenities, but without throwing the baby lemurs out the windows with the greywater. Here's a short conversation I had with Tapogna about something I wanted to shed more light on.

Steve: Mr. Tapogna, good to talk to you today.

Topogna: Good to meet you too.

Steve: The really interesting thing to me about the whole restoration is the skylights.

Topogna: These skylights have been used in Europe, specifically in Germany for about 25, 30 years and they are quite commonplace in museums, zoos, aquariums. What they are is—the shorthand is E-T-F-E, which stands for ethylene tetrafluoroethylene. They are put out by a company called Foiltec. They are German, but they have a North American wing—Foiltec, North America—[that] runs out at Albany. They helped us very early in the design to sort of size them, to also engineer them, because we've two types of skylights on this project, both by Foiltec. The first type is a static system which is basically—I think of them as pillows. They are sort of the pillowcase without the pillow. They are inflatable plastic volumes that are retained in anything from a rectangular, square or trapezoidal frame and they are pumped full of air with pneumatic piping. Basically add air at the top that trickles at the bottom over time. So we have static over the exhibits that need not be controlled from a solar gain point of view. But over Spiny Forest, which is a very hot, dry environment, we have a dynamic skylight system whereby there is a middle layer; there is a third middle layer that moves and it moves because you can introduce air above or below that middle layer and push it up or down. And by aligning a frit pattern, which is little dots on the surface—that's printed on the surface—by aligning those dots together in a collapsed fashion, you actually screen the sunlight; and then if you pull them apart, it lets the sunlight in. So you're basically almost like filtering sunlight through leaves on a tree. It's linked to the building management system, in that if the space gets too hot, you pump air into these pillow skylights and it collapses the top and the middle layer and it screens the sun and then when it cools off it opens up again. So they have some intelligence to them. And then if it gets very, very hot, there is[are] actually three exhaust hatches in the uppermost roofs which are also Foiltec that basically just purge the hottest air and then those close as well.

Steve: The building management system is—that computerized, so this will all happen automatically?

Topogna: It's an entirely computerized through a series of centralized computers. It[The system] controls the Foiltec skylights and it controls all the lighting, all the temperature sensors. And basically it's all set up ahead of time and it runs programs for each and every space, so the rain forest is different than the deserts, the deserts are different than the highlands, the lowlands and then there is also the whole zone for the human—you know, human visitors.

Steve: So again, these skylights—they can be inflated or compressed basically and that layer of air will act as insulation or won't be there.

Topogna: Yes!

Steve: And then you also have the frits that line up, so you can either let UV in or reflect UV so that you don't get greenhouse heating within the building when you don't want it?

Topogna: That's correct, although there is a twist with these skylights in that the animals need the UV radiation. Usually we're trying to reject the UV radiation—in this project we're letting it in on purpose because the animals need it to live a healthy life. So it's a real design challenge, in that you have to let it in but then at a certain point, you'll get this tipping point temperature-wise and then the skylights will be able to reject the UV for [a] certain amount of time until the space recovers, and then we go back to the normal cycle.

Steve: So there are unique challenges for a building that's going to house animals and people?

Topogna: Absolutely. And most buildings that don't have animals but only human occupants, we are doing very different things. But here that was turned upside down, and still we had to adjust; so this technology helps us to do that.

Steve: Believe it or not, the architecture firm turning the Bronx zoo's Lion House into the Madagascar exhibit used to be called Fox and Fowle, and now their F-x-fowl at

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. ! Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1:Cow gives strawberry-flavored milk.

Story number 2:Over 100 kids had half their brains removed at Hopkins.

Story number 3:A new type of stellar explosion discovered.

Story number 4:Ecstasy poses additional risk for those on high-fat diets.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. People on high-fat diets who use ecstasy face an additional health risk—possibly lethal overheating. From overeating to overheating. That's according to a study in the British Journal of Pharmacology: Most deaths related to ecstasy use a[re caused by] a related overheating that causes organ failure. The circumstances of ecstasy use increase the risk as the drug is popular in crowded clubs where people can easily become dehydrated by dancing and alcohol use; and a high-fat diet appears to raise blood levels of fatty acids which can impede body temperature regulation. For more see the May 29th article at the SciAm Web site called "High-Fat Diet May Increase Ecstasy Danger".

Story number 3 is true. Astronomers have indeed seen the remnants of a previously unknown kind of stellar explosion. That's according to a report in the journal Nature. The explosion—which took place in the galaxy Messier 85—was too faint to be a supernova, in which a star literally explodes, but it was too bright to be a regular, old nova or [a] thermonuclear explosion from the surface of a white dwarf star. So what was it? It looks like the big boom was caused when two ordinary stars crashed into each other some 49 million years ago, Lets hope it was a no-fault galaxy.

Story number 2 is true. Between 1975 and 2001 more than 111 children had one of their brain's two hemispheres completely removed. The drastic surgery stops frequent seizures. You can read more about this very odd subject in the May 24th story in the Weird Science section of the SciAm Web site called, "When Half a Brain is Better Than a Whole One." Just go to and hit the link for Weird Science. Said one neurologist quoted in the story, "you can take more than half; if you take the whole thing you've got a problem."

All of which means that story number 1—about the cow that gives strawberry-flavored milk—is of course TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. But what is true is that a cow in New Zealand actually does give skimmed milk. The cow was bred by a company called ViaLactia [Biosciences]. According to [a] United Press International Report, the cow was actually found to be successfully producing low-fat milk back in 2001, but it's now been confirmed that the trait can be passed along to the cows— no doubt skinny calves.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at, check out news articles at the Web site,, and the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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