Spaghetti Junction: The Tom Moreland Interchange, Atlanta. Wikimedia Commons.

In Plain Sight

Stories of American Infrastructure

As crash experts sort out why an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last month, killing eight passengers, Congress is still haggling over how to replenish the nation’s Highway Trust Fund before it goes dry. All the while, the safety of America’s roads and rails hangs in the balance. So on this show, Brian, Ed and Peter uncover the stuff of modern life that’s hidden in plain sight. How have Americans decided what infrastructure to invest in, how to maintain it, and who ultimately has to pay for it? Our stories take a look behind the scenes at the electric grid, the shipping industry and the origins of oil pipelines.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. A day after last month’s fatal Amtrak crash, lawmakers in Washington were already pointing fingers– at each other. Here’s New York Democrat Steve Israel on MSNBC railing against Republicans for slashing Amtrak’s budget.

STEVE ISRAEL: They repeal the entire estate tax at a cost of nearly $700 billion to the Treasury without a penny in offset. So instead of subsidizing special interests, we need to subsidize the safety of Americans in their infrastructure.

BRIAN: Infrastructure is what we’re tracing through time today in stories about the dawn of the electric age, the rise of the shipping container, and a clash over the country’s first oil pipelines.

MALE SPEAKER: This was frontier capitalism at its dirtiest and perhaps most representative.

BRIAN: Coming up on BackStory– America’s infrastructure. What systems took shape, and what happens when they fail? Don’t go away.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hey, guys.

BRIAN: We’re going to start off today in the Bronx.

PAUL ZUCCONI: I was a sophomore in high school and part of the basketball program.

PETER: This is Paul Zucconi. Like many of his fellow athletes– members of the St Helena High junior varsity team– he practiced in the gym in the evenings. But this wasn’t the normal evening. This was November 9, 1965, and darkness was about to descend on their world.

PAUL ZUCCONI: One of the players on the team had brought along with him a transistor radio. And he had it on playing “The Taste of Honey,” Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.


PAUL ZUCCONI: You could hear the thing start to warble and warp. It came down the court one last time. Somebody threw the ball up, and that was it. Nobody ever saw it come down.

PETER: Paul and his teammates were caught in the middle of one of New York’s first great blackouts.

ANNOUNCER: Good evening. The Northeastern United States tonight suffered its worst electric power failure in history. Just before 5:30 tonight, at 5:28 in New York, at the height of a rush hour, the lights went out.

BRIAN: The 1965 blackout affected some 30 million people throughout the Northeast. It was later attributed to an incorrectly installed relay, and it inspired new metering and monitoring procedures to try and prevent something like it from happening in the future.

But then, in July of 1977, it happened again. This time, the blackout was triggered by a series of lightning strikes on electrical equipment and was limited to the New York City metropolitan area.

ANNOUNCER: At 9:34 last night, the Statue of Liberty and the rest of New York were brightly lighted as usual. A moment later, only Liberty and her lamp were there.

PETER: Unlike the 1965 blackout, which was notable for the pronounced drop in criminal activity during the darkness, the 1977 blackout is famous for the arson and looting that ensued in many of the city’s neighborhoods. Once again, new measures were taken to protect the electrical system from another failure, and, once again, those measures worked for only so long.

ANNOUNCER: Good evening from our NBC News headquarters in midtown Manhattan, where we are in the midst of what appears to be a colossal and history-making blackout.

BRIAN: This news report is from August, 2003, when a software bug in Ohio triggered another massive power failure, stretching as far west as Detroit and as far north as Montreal. Some 55 million people were affected, almost twice as many as in 1965, and that included everybody in the Big Apple.

We called up a few New Yorkers with memories of these blackouts. Their experiences varied by location and by year, but one thing was constant– they all remembered exactly where they were when the lights went out.

FLORENCE EIDMAN: In 1965, I was teaching in Harlem.

RAY ELLEN: During the 2003 blackout, I was in the kitchen, where I don’t usually spend time.

ELLEN MUSICANT: When the lights went out in 1977, I was with my boyfriend at the time at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

TOBIA PELL: And as I’m walking through Macy’s, the lights are flickering. You know, like on and off, on and off. And I said to myself, something’s going to happen.

ANTONIO ROSARIO: There was something in the rhythm of the cars, or something that changed, that caught my ear. And so it’s more like I more was listening and hearing the blackout start.

PETER: That was Florence Eidman, Ray Ellen, Ellen Musicant, Tobia Pell, and Antonio Rosario. We spoke to others too and were struck by the fact that out of all of them, only one– Ray Ellen– could remember the moment when the lights came back on. He was standing in an empty street in Greenwich Village, the day after that 2003 blackout.

RAY ELLEN: I just– I saw, like all of a sudden, it was just all the street lights came on, one after the other. It was like, you know, boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Like it just took me a second. I’m like, oh, the power’s back on.

BRIAN: We couldn’t help wondering– is there a reason that so many people remember the electricity going out, but they don’t remember it coming back on? I mean, after all those hours without air conditioning– or in 1965, without heat– you might think it would be just the opposite, that the moment when physical comfort was restored, that would be the moment that was etched in people’s minds forever.

PETER: On the other hand, perhaps it’s not all that surprising. The systems that provide us with electricity and, for that matter, phone signals and clean water and air traffic control– well, you name it– they may be getting more complex all the time. And yet, it’s only when those systems break that we seem to really notice them. The rest of the time, we’re just like Antonio Rosario, who admits that he takes the system for granted.

ANTONIO ROSARIO: You know, I’m not thinking when I’m plugging stuff in. I’m just assuming I’m going to always have that there. And so something like the grid, or a water line, and all that stuff just sort of recedes in the background.

BRIAN: Now, this basic truth of American life– that we take our infrastructure for granted until it fails– has been on our minds a lot lately. We first started thinking about it this spring, as Congress attempted– and failed– to renew its long-term funding for federal highway projects. More recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the sorry state of America’s rail system. That, of course, triggered by May’s tragic Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.

PETER: Why is it, commentators wonder, that the world’s largest economy can’t get it together to pay for the physical systems that keep life running smoothly here? The share of our GDP allocated to transport and water projects is half what it was 50 years ago, and what it currently is in much of Europe. And it’s not for lack of need– the American Society of Civil Engineers says more than $3.5 trillion dollars are necessary to keep our public infrastructure in good working order.

BRIAN: For the rest of the hour today, we’re going to take a closer look at how America’s infrastructure developed in the first place, and see what light history can shed on the challenges we’re facing today. We’ll hear why coastal infrastructure was such a priority for the nation’s founders, and about the 19th-century origins of today’s struggles over new oil pipelines.

But first, let’s return to this question of powering American cities. It’s a question with deep roots stretching all the way back to the early days of industry in 19th-century New England.

BERNIE CARLSON: They had systems which were truly bizarre, and I’ve only seen a couple paintings like this, where you actually had a giant shafts that were like hundreds of feet long.

BRIAN: This is Benny Carlson, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.

BERNIE CARLSON: And you would basically have the wooden shaft connected to a water wheel, and it would go up the hill. And at a certain point, maybe it would have to turn right or it would have to turn left. And you’d have a gearing system there, and then another shaft. And that’s how you transmitted power from one point to another.

PETER: In the 1880s, Thomas Edison spearheaded a revolution when he proved energy could be converted to electricity, housed in a generating station, and fed over short distances via direct current. 59 customers in Manhattan signed up for Edison’s services.

BRIAN: But others had bigger dreams. A businessman named Edward Dean Adams look at the roaring waters of Niagara Falls and figured, if he could bottle that energy and convert it into electricity, he could power entire cities, like Buffalo, or even New York City. The only question was how to transport it. In 1891, Adams set out to explore his various options.

BERNIE CARLSON: Adams went to in fact set up an entire special technical commission of leading scientists from the US, from Canada, from England. And eventually Adams finds himself talking to Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current. Before Tesla, there was only electric lighting, and that was invented by Edison, and it used direct current.

After Tesla, we can say that there’s electric light in power. And we can say that because Tesla invented the alternating current motor. And if you don’t have a motor, you can’t use electricity for all sorts of power applications.

BRIAN: Wait. Before we get to the motors, Bernie– what’s alternating current? I’m sorry.


BRIAN: I didn’t pay attention in that class.

BERNIE CARLSON: OK. So while you were asleep in physics class that day, when they talk about electricity, we use electricity in two ways. The first is the electricity that comes out of a battery, which is a direct current. It’s always going to have the electricity flowing through the radio circuits at 9 volts, at a steady voltage.

Alternating current means that the voltage goes up and it goes down. In the United States, when it comes out of the wall, at one moment, it is at 120 volts positive, and then at the next moment, it’s at 120 volts negative.

So all of us now drag around with our computer a power cord. And on that power cord is a box, and in that box is a transformer. And what that transformer does is it takes the 120 volts that comes out of the wall, and it steps it down, I believe, to 12 volts, and the 12 volts is what goes into your computer and runs your computer. Alternating current allows you to have a simple, efficient device that allows you to switch the voltage up or switch the voltage down.

BRIAN: Interesting.

BERNIE CARLSON: So when Tesla was corresponding with Edward Dean Adams, and Adams was looking for free advice about electricity, Tesla kept coming back and sort of saying, look, you don’t want to do this with direct current. Direct current is inefficient. You’re going to be disappointed. You want to use alternating current, Mr. Adams– this is Tesla writing him– because it will allow you to transmit the energy over long distances using high voltages, but you can then step it down safely so the electricity can be at a safe voltage level, and you can introduce it into people’s businesses.

BRIAN: What were the practical outcomes of using this great source of power, sending it at a distance, and deciding on the alternating current approach?

BERNIE CARLSON: So when Adams decided after some debate to use alternating current to basically transmit the power from Niagara– first to Buffalo, which he did in 1895, and then ultimately by the end of the 19th century to New York City– it had an incredible set of economic and social transformations.

First, all of a sudden, companies could save money, because they could hook up to the grid and buy their energy from the electric company, and they could get rid of having to have big piles of coal in the backyard, in the yard of the factory, and a steam engine that the coal would feed and provide that. So all of the sudden–

BRIAN: Bernie, was this analogous to the cloud in computing, where companies that really have very little to do with computing can now just rely on a source of memory? They don’t have to go invest in huge banks of computers in order to store their data?

BERNIE CARLSON: Absolutely. That’s a perfect analogy. Companies didn’t have to have their own steam engines. They didn’t have to have their own generators. They didn’t have to have all the people that were working around those.

BRIAN: What if Adams had chosen differently? What if he had gone with some of the competing ways of transmitting electricity, like direct current?

BERNIE CARLSON: You wouldn’t use the direct current at very high voltages, and that would have meant that you probably would have only put it into select operations. On the other end, what you would have had to do at the consumption end– say the factory or the department store or your home– is you would have had not just a transformer, but you would have had a much more complicated device, which was called a rotary converter.

And the rotary converter consisted of two parts. It was a motor and a generator. So the electricity would come in at a high voltage. It would run a specially designed motor. On the same shaft as the motor would be another generator, and the generator would then turn to make 100 point–

BRIAN: So you are in essence recreating the production of energy at your own factory. Not terribly practical for home.

BERNIE CARLSON: Yeah. And so a, the rotary converters would only be in factories. You wouldn’t necessarily have them at home, so that would limit it. The cost of energy would have been significantly higher, because the rotary converters are far more inefficient from a technical standpoint, so your energy standpoint.

And so as a result, the cost of electricity would have been higher. It would have been probably more of a specialty service for industries, and it would have been more of a luxury good for individual homeowners. So electricity would not have spread as widely as it did.

We wouldn’t have as much street lighting. We wouldn’t have lights in individual homes. We wouldn’t have the whole sort of revolution in appliances that you see in the 1920s, washing machines in the 1950s, a washer and dryer and a freezer. But you wouldn’t have had that whole proliferation of appliances that we take for granted.

BRIAN: Bernie, did Adams envision this world in which the electrical grid would allow individuals to have all of these appliances?

BERNIE CARLSON: Adams comes from a 19th-century producer culture. In other words, you make your money by selling things from one businessman to another. You build up the industry. And so I think when Adams creates the Niagara plan, he’s fully anticipating that the electricity is going to be used for business and industrial purposes. It’s going to be used–

BRIAN: You go to where the money is, and it’s in business.

BERNIE CARLSON: That’s right. Yeah. It’s another set of individuals in the 1910s and 1920s who begin to realize that, no, you know, actually the money is in consumption.

BRIAN: Individual households.

BERNIE CARLSON: Exactly. And Adams didn’t see that part coming. That’s beyond his initial vision. But it’s the difference as to where we are today. And in fact, we don’t worry about whether industry is going to suck up too much electricity. We know when the brownouts are going to come. The brownouts are going to come when all of us turn on our individual air conditioners when it gets to be 90 degrees outside.

BRIAN: Bernie Carlson is a historian at the University of Virginia. His latest book is Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age.

ED: It’s time for us to take a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, we remember a time long, long, long ago, when politicians were able to agree on infrastructure funding.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.


BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re talking about how some of America’s key infrastructure took shape. It’s a topic that’s been in the news a lot recently, and that’s in part because Congress is once again trying to find a long-term source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund. That’s the money that states rely on to maintain the roads and mass transit systems. In May, lawmakers once again agreed on a short-term fix to keep the fund solvent, with many of them reluctant to commit to a more permanent solution that would involve raising gas taxes.

PETER: It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the nation’s early days, when politicians were able to bridge their differences and find the money for infrastructure projects that benefited everybody. Now, not all infrastructure projects fit this bill. Roads and canals, for instance, benefited some regions more than others, and so they tended to be controversial. Lighthouses, now– there’s something Americans could all get behind.

BRIAN: In 1790, Congress voted to take over the nation’s lighthouse system, which had been run locally. In a world built on sea trade, these lighthouses were crucial navigation aids. But historian Allen Miller says that for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, lighthouses had another less tangible appeal.

ALLEN MILLER: From a larger point of view, lighthouses allow Hamilton– or help Hamilton– do something that’s important to him, which is stitch these local state and regional economies into a national economy. Lighthouses promote interstate and inter-regional commerce, and that is a big priority for Hamilton. He sees it as a means of creating much greater adhesion between the states and between the regions.

I think they also saw it as something that gave them an opportunity to create a greater presence of the federal state itself, at a time when it was kind of a vague image in people’s minds. Very few physical representations of the state itself. I suppose you could say it’s a little ironic, because many of the lighthouses that the federal government builds in the first decade or two after they take control of the system are in what we might think of as terrestrially remote locations, far away from cities, from settlements.

BRIAN: So what’s a good example of one of those remote lighthouses that would loom large to anybody needing to navigate for national commerce?

ALLEN MILLER: Well, the first lighthouse that’s actually built under federal control– and actually the first federal works project of any kind– is the Cape Henry lighthouse, which is at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. When the federal government takes over the lighthouse system, there’s a gap of almost 500 miles without any lighthouse between the mouth of Delaware Bay and Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.


ALLEN MILLER: And between 1791 and 1794, the federal government builds three lighthouses at points equidistant within that 500 mile gap. From the point of view of mariners, from the point of view of commerce, they very clearly link a variety of locations into a national commercial network.

BRIAN: When we look at a lighthouse today, frankly I always wonder what the postcard version of that lighthouse is. It looks really lonely. It’s just standing out there all by itself, and I have no notion looking at it that it’s part of this national system. Yet it seems like the lighthouses you’re talking about were every bit as much a part of a national system as the radar stations are today for air traffic control. Is that the case?

ALLEN MILLER: Absolutely. And as I said, one of the first things the federal government does is build these series of lighthouses along the coast at fairly regular intervals. Not only are they at regular intervals, they follow a fairly standard design, in terms of their octagonal shape, general sort of proportions. It’s really very striking how similar these buildings are.

And I believe that the federal government is consciously trying to project the idea that this is part of the federal state. This is an example of sort of best practices that the useful arts of America have to offer. And they should be understood as something that demonstrates the state’s credibility and competence and, to a great extent, the potential longevity of the state as well.

BRIAN: The message they illuminated was “your tax dollars at work.”


ALLEN MILLER: Yeah, and I think probably the idea that we’re going to be here for a long time. And also we are here to serve a purpose. We are a benevolent presence in a dangerous world.

BRIAN: What do you think today’s symbol of the national government’s presence in the infrastructure is? What’s the comparable symbol to the lighthouse back in the 18th century?

ALLEN MILLER: I’m tempted to say a crumbling bridge on the interstate.

BRIAN: Oh, ouch. Ouch. I fear that you might be right, Allen. Well, thank you for joining us on BackStory today.

ALLEN MILLER: It’s my pleasure, Brian.

BRIAN: Allen Miller teaches history at Lancaster Country Day School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


BRIAN: Peter, Ed– thinking about our conversation about lighthouses, something really jumps out at me. And that’s there’s incredible consensus over this really quite large infrastructure project for the time. It flies through Congress. I can’t think of any major infrastructure project today that doesn’t run into a buzz saw of opposition.

PETER: Well, the thing about lighthouses is they announced to the world that the nation exists. There is a capacity to direct traffic into places where you’re going to pay the tariff. For the United States to exist, it has to be able to collect revenue. That’s the key thing.

ED: It’s kind of like a giant “we’re open” sign.

PETER: You’re exactly right. Brian, I’ve got to challenge this business about consensus, because that suggests that Americans all over the United States were saying, hey, we got to get this thing together. We’re going to create a new nation, and it’s going to be the greatest power on earth. Well, we almost didn’t have a constitution at all. So to make it functional–

BRIAN: So Peter, you’re saying that this consensus is the quiet after the real storm, which is the creation of the federal government.

PETER: I would put it a little bit differently. I would say lighthouses are part of the Constitution. They’re part of the package. It’s what you got once you agreed to ratify.

And remember, it wasn’t an overwhelming majority of the American people who wanted the Constitution. The votes were close. It barely happened. But if it’s going to happen, this is what it does.

You have to think of the Constitution and the technology of the Constitution as much more than a piece of paper. You have to think of the kind of economy and society that it’s going to create. And that’s in flux. It’s dynamic. There’s a lot of tension, and there will continue to be throughout American history.

ED: So what you’re saying, Peter, is that the Constitution itself is infrastructure.

PETER: I think that’s the best way to think about it.

ED: And so the lighthouses are sort of beacons of the infrastructure of the Constitution, Brian, it strikes me. And that’s great as long as you’re looking outward, as long as this is fundamentally about commerce.

And I have to say– I don’t want to drive any listeners away, but it brings up a tried and true phrase from multiple choice tests, from everybody’s middle school and high school textbooks, which is “internal improvements.” It’s like, let’s turn this infrastructure to developing ourselves, to connecting the colonies– now the states– in ways that nature doesn’t seem necessarily to have done, but that we’re going to, if this infrastructure of the Constitution is going to flourish.

BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. You know, those lighthouses were mainly used for commerce between the states, but it was all along the East Coast, along the seacoast.

ED: So listen. Get the nation together on purpose. Started with turnpikes, which are roads that have their own internal funding built in with tolls. Let’s do it with then canals, the new technology that follows soon after that. Let’s do it with steamships that come after that. And all these ways, it’s a way of turning the gaze of the nation in upon itself so that it can take advantage of this external world of commerce that you’re talking about, Peter.

PETER: I think there’s a key thing that we have to emphasize. What is the role of the federal government, or of any government in promoting these improvements? I have a counterargument to you that many Americans will begin to make when they see that they’re going to face taxes, direct or indirect, to improve infrastructure.

They’re going to say, well, let nature take its course, because nature is not just the big trees that you can hug. Nature is the way people exchange things. It’s free trade. That’s the mantra. We don’t need government to do things that are going to happen spontaneously. And now that the world is at peace– there’s no major war or danger– let’s take the line of least resistance, because that’s what nature enjoins.

BRIAN: And Peter, that’s not to mention all those folks who were really pretty happy with those older, simpler infrastructures like lighthouses that were more externally oriented towards Great Britain, for instance.

ED: Well, it’s also the case that in the South in particular, we’ve got all these rivers that don’t freeze like in the North. And they go exactly where we need them to go. They go from the rich cotton-producing places right down to the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean.

So why should we pay big taxes to develop other parts of the country when, especially now that we have steamships that can go back up against the current, we have all that we need? And so ironically, this idea of internal improvements begins pulling the nation apart, rather than pulling it together.

PETER: There’s no question about it. And I think that’s a way in which what begins as a local issue becomes a national issue. If you can do something within the boundaries of the state, on the one hand, that’s investing federal money in a particular state.

But it means that the federal government has a kind of reach, it has the capacity, to affect domestic institutions. And many of the concerns about internal improvements have to do with protecting the sanctity of states’ rights control over the institution of slavery. If you can build a canal, you might end slavery.

ED: Yeah, I do think the number of internal improvements that run north to south are remarkably small.

PETER: Yeah, that’s right.

ED: And so the internal improvements of so many of the canals and so many of the railroads actually emphasize sectionalism.

PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right.

ED: It seems to be the man-made stuff that actually creates a sense of where the North and the South are. Many of the constitutional crises which we look back now and think of– slavery as pre-figuring the Civil War– are also tied in with the idea of improvement.

Of course, you have the transcontinental railroad. Yikes. Suddenly you’ve got an internal improvement that’s going to tie the whole continent together. Who’s going to control that? What will be the constitutional implications of all that?

PETER: Yeah. Think of the Civil War and the constitutional changes that take place in the wake of the destruction of the Confederacy as a new blueprint for the Union, as a new technology for improvement, changing the rules of the game.

ED: And yeah, once you do have that new blueprint for what a new America might look like, the role of infrastructure just accelerates. The golden age of railroads is after the Civil War. And then it’s not long until you have the golden age of highways and automobiles.

And so I do think there’s kind of a rebooting, Brian. You’d asked about lighthouses. That seems very far away by the time you get to 1870. And now suddenly, the United States is on the move, most of it internally.


It’s time for us to take another break. When we get back, the biggest infrastructure innovation of the 20th century that you’ve probably never considered.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of America’s infrastructure– how it’s taken shape, and what it has meant for Americans to be ever more interconnected by these physical networks.

BRIAN: Malcolm McLean was born in the swamp lands of southeastern North Carolina. In the midst of the Great Depression, McLean started a trucking company that within a couple of decades would be the third-largest in the country. As McLean’s company grew, so did traffic on the routes his trucks drove between North Carolina and the Northeast, and McLean was not a patient man.

Looking to the east, he saw potential for a traffic-free journey in the sleepy waterways of the Atlantic coast. He figured, why not drive my trucks right on to the decks of ships? And he came up with a brilliant idea for keeping truck cabs and wheels from taking up valuable space on those desks.

MARC LEVINSON: He developed the notion that maybe you could just take the trailer off of the wheels of the truck and simply put the trailer on a ship.

BRIAN: This is journalist Marc Levinson. In his book The Box, he makes the case that McLean’s big idea sparked an infrastructure revolution in the 20th century– containerization. It got its first test run at the port of Newark, New Jersey.

MARC LEVINSON: McLean had bought a couple of old World War II tanker ships. There were a lot of leftover ships from the war, and so he’d purchased a couple of these. And he built an artificial deck on top with basically squares, so that the containers could be dropped into these squares and locked into place. And in April of 1956, one of these ships carried a handful of containers– by modern standards– from Newark to Houston, Texas. This was really the first modern container voyage.

Now, Malcolm McLean had a very sharp pencil. So after the first voyage, he did some calculations. He figured that a normal ship going from Newark to Houston would cost about $5.86, something like that, per ton of cargo. And by shipping container, it cost closer to $0.16 a ton. There was just an enormous, enormous cost saving by putting the freight into a container. And that was information that he used to help convince the world that this was a technology whose time had come.

BRIAN: And when did containerization go global today? That’s the first thing I think about is stuff going from China to Los Angeles.

MARC LEVINSON: There was a big step in going from domestic containerization to international containerization. Once McLean got his business going, other ship lines saw that, hey, maybe there’s a little business in containers.

And so different ship lines developed different containers. And some used, like McLean, a 35 foot container, and others used a container that was 17 feet long, or 24 feet long, or 40 feet long. And containerization really couldn’t go global until everybody agreed on a standard size. So starting in the late 1950s, there was an almost endless series of negotiations about standards for containers.


BRIAN: Those must have been thrilling negotiations.

MARC LEVINSON: Can you imagine sitting in smoke-filled rooms for five or six or seven years, arguing about the thickness of the end wall of a container? That’s what was going on.

BRIAN: I love it.

MARC LEVINSON: That’s what was going on here. But the point was that this business was not going to go global unless the shipper, the person who owned the cargo, could be confident that the container could be handled in any port around the world, and could go on any ship. And it really took about 10 years before there was an international agreement on what we now think of as the standard shipping container– 40 feet long, eight feet wide.

BRIAN: Mark, you know, this is a show about the history of infrastructure. And when I think about infrastructure, I think about systems. And I don’t really see the system here. This is just a bunch of metal boxes.

MARC LEVINSON: The container industry is entirely a system, and that was really McLean’s genius. People had been talking about putting goods in containers to ship them since the 1700s.

BRIAN: Right.

MARC LEVINSON: And it was a very inefficient way to ship merchandise. Why? Well, the ships were not really designed for the containers. What did you do with the container when it got to the other end? Often you just had to cut it up or melt it down. So this was actually a money losing kind of venture.

And McLean’s genius was to see that you needed to build a system around this. You needed to have cranes that could lift the containers at the ports and put them on the ships and then remove them from the ships. You needed to be able to shift those containers onto trucks or onto trains. And all the parts had to work together, not only at Newark or at Houston, but at any port in the world.

BRIAN: Well, your book has an enviably short title– The Box– but it’s got a whopper of a subtitle– How the Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Can you tell us how the container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger, once it began to take off?

MARC LEVINSON: Sure. If you go back to the pre-container days– we’re talking the 1950s here– it often cost 10% or 20% or more of the value of the goods to send goods internationally. So a lot of things just didn’t make sense to ship. A lot of industries simply served its own local area, wherever that was, because of the transport costs. Loading it into a truck, loading it into a ship were just too expensive to move the goods.

And the containerization process really drove shipping costs down. All of a sudden, it became practical to ship things than previously had been uneconomical to ship. Consider that today, if you’re in the United States and you’re buying a bottle of wine that was made in Australia, maybe you’re paying $0.09 or $0.10 for the shipping cost of that bottle of wine halfway around the world.

BRIAN: Is that right? It’s only $0.09 or $0.10?

MARC LEVINSON: Yes, absolutely. If you’re buying a pair of shoes that was made in Vietnam, maybe you’re paying $0.06, $0.07 to ship those shoes.

BRIAN: You write that there are a lot of unintended consequences of this infrastructure. Could you name three or four of those?

MARC LEVINSON: Sure. When the container business started, obviously, no one really thought that it was going to change international shipping costs that much and change the world economy that much. Again, the purpose of containerization initially, from Malcolm McLean’s point of view, was to save some time going up and down the US East Coast.

BRIAN: Yeah. He didn’t want to sit in traffic.

MARC LEVINSON: He didn’t want to sit in traffic. And he was not thinking about the fact that this was going to turn China into the world’s workshop. So certainly one unintended consequence of containerization was this redistribution of economic activity all around the world.

Another was the demise of the giant factory. Back in the 1950s, we still had a large number of factories in this country– and in other countries– that employed 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people. And they engaged in what you can think of as integrated production. They made all of the parts for a final product, and then they brought all those parts together, and then they assembled the final product all in one place.

Why was that done? It was done that way because moving the parts and components around was really expensive. But once containerization came in, you didn’t need all this stuff happening at one location anymore. You could make these components here and these other components there, and these other things here, and you could ship them to be assembled into the final product at yet another place.

So containers have changed our lives as consumers. Containers have changed our lives as workers. And not always for the better. We’ve had workers who are much worse off because the world has become more global. People used to have well paid jobs in factories, and the factories simply moved. And those jobs haven’t been replaced. So I think it’s fair to say that the container has really changed our lives in many, many ways.

BRIAN: Marc, thanks so much for joining us on BackStory today.

MARC LEVINSON: Thank you for having me.

BRIAN: Marc Levinson is the author of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.


PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking today about the infrastructure that makes modern life possible. We began the show with a discussion about moving electricity from point A to point B. We’re going to conclude with another story about energy, this one about oil.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The Keystone pipeline. Surrounded by controversy, a decision pending. It would transport Canadian oil to Gulf Coast refineries. But do we need it? Believe it or not–

ED: As you may be aware, a pretty serious debate has been raging for the past few years about whether or not to move forward with plans for the Keystone XL pipeline. One of the questions that has been raised is whether it would be safer to transport crude from Canada by rail.

MALE SPEAKER: Firefighters say the oil slick runs for miles along the Southern California coastline after an estimated 21,000 gallons poured from a large broken pipeline Tuesday morning.

ED: Some argue the trains would be just as prone to accidents.

FEMALE SPEAKER: In November in Alabama, these railcars derailed and blew up, and caused an explosion that led to the release of 750,000 gallons of crude oil.

ED: Historian Christopher Jones has been watching this debate with a certain sense of deja vu, and that’s because Americans were debating the merits of rails versus pipes all the way back in the late 19th century. It all started, says Jones, when Standard Oil Chief John D Rockefeller cut sweetheart deals with railroad companies, deals that essentially blocked his competitors from using trains to get oil to their refineries.

CHRISTOPHER JONES: And what happens in 1879 is that a group of oilmen not affiliated with Standard Oil decide to try and shift the game on Rockefeller. And their way of doing this is that they’re going to build the world’s first long distance oil pipeline.

So the key person behind this is Byron Benson, who teams with a group of other people to build a pipeline. It’s called the Tidewater Pipeline, because the goal is to get from Western Pennsylvania all the way to the ocean.

And this is an audacious undertaking. It’s comparable in many ways to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which happens just a few years later. In fact, it’s so audacious that a number of people following the oil industry start calling the project Benson’s Folly.

ED: And I’m also guessing that Rockefeller is not a big fan of this, right?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Right. Everyone knew that Rockefeller wasn’t going to simply sit back and let the heart of his empire crumble. And he did not, in fact. Rockefeller employed several strategies to try to subvert the pipeline.

The pipeline company had to buy a single unbroken strip of land over 100 miles long in order to complete the pipeline. And so what Rockefeller did was try as hard as he could to buy all of the land rights in blocking strips.

In addition to just sort of trying to buy these property rights, Rockefeller was also completely happy to fight dirty. So he would send agents into the field that pretended to be pipeline employees to throw off the progress on the project.

And he even hired someone who ended up dressing as a bum, and that bum would sit outside the pipeline’s telegraph office, where he could actually hear the click, click of the telegraph, memorize those messages, and up reporting them back to Standard Oil. So this was frontier capitalism at its sort of dirtiest and perhaps most representative.

ED: All right. So there’s all this skulduggery going on. And so does this mean that David defeats Goliath?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Yes. So it turns out actually by the end of May 1879, the pipeline is completed, and they put the oil in the pipeline. It starts to flow.

There’s a brief moment of panic because the pressures in the pipes suddenly rise enormously, and so they have to shut down the pipes. They open up one of the pipes and discover there were several pieces of wood and rope stuck in the pipeline. And they were never quite sure whether this was careless workers or deliberate sabotage.

But they clear it out, restart the pumps. And a few days later, in early June 1879, the first oil arrives in Williamsport. It’s a great success. There’s a spirited celebration.

In fact, one of the funny stories about this is that several decades later in the 1930s, Kern and Hammerstein actually produce a musical called High, Wide, and Handsome, and the whole plot centers around a group of oilmen trying to defeat an evil railroad magnate by building a pipeline.

ED: Can you hum a few bars?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: I certainly cannot.


ED: So how did Rockefeller respond to this threat?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Rockefeller ends up paying Benson and his colleagues the highest form of flattery, which is imitation. And Rockefeller’s always been a wily fox. And he was willing to admit he may have lost a battle, but he certainly wasn’t going to end up losing the war.

And within five years, he’s created his own network of pipelines connecting the oil fields to all of his major refineries. And Rockefeller now controls about 88% of the pipeline shipments by 1883. And this is where the transition to pipeline for the transport of oil really gains steam.

ED: And the railroads are just pushed aside?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: The railroads are the big losers. in this. And Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of America’s brilliant capitalists at this time, head of the New York Central Railroad, he observes as soon as the Tidewater Pipeline is completed that quote “The oil business is sealed. There’s no question that the railroads won’t have any of the oil business for long.” And it turns out, for about 130 years, he’s right.

ED: That’s an intriguing statement. What happens after 130 years?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Well, what’s going on right now is the railroads are serving the movement of oil in regions that are fairly new producers of oil, where pipeline technology has not already been built. And it turns out now it’s much, much more difficult to actually get a pipeline constructed, as debates over the Keystone XL Pipeline have shown. And so railroads that may have started to have been obsolete in regions like North Dakota are suddenly being revitalized to carry that crude oil.

ED: So is one mode of transport intrinsically superior to the other?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Most of the time when people debate whether pipelines or railroads are better for transporting oil, they’re thinking about a, how much does it cost? B, how much capacity do the respective infrastructures have? And c, what’s their safety record? And all of those are absolutely important considerations. But there’s very little conversation about what’s the overall civic benefit of the difference between these transportation systems?

ED: Right.

CHRISTOPHER JONES: Obviously, pipelines and railroads can both carry oil, but pipelines carry a single product in a single direction, and they don’t end up returning anything material in their wake. If you’re a resident of North Dakota right now, do you want pipelines built or railroads? You probably actually prefer railroads being built, because the oil industry there is already under severe constraint as a result of the price of oil dropping over the last six months.

And so if oil goes away, pipelines do you no good. But if the oil goes away and you have a robust railroad network, you actually have the opportunity to transition into other types of economic development.

ED: So what lessons do you think we should take from the Tidewater Pipeline when we think about our own struggles today over, say, the Keystone Pipeline?

CHRISTOPHER JONES: What the Tidewater Pipeline ended up initiating was a very long shift in the transport of oil to pipelines. And in doing so, it didn’t simply act as a passive conduit between producers and consumers. These oil pipelines were directly part of building markets for oil. By making it cheaper to ship oil, they encouraged the people running them to help find new uses.

And so part of the reason we use as much oil as we do is because we’ve built technologies that make it really easy and attractive to do so. And so one lesson we can take from this is that which technologies of energy transport we build are going to shape what types of energy we use.

When we hear the word technology, we often think gadgets. We think things like iPhones or laptops, technologies that are exciting, that are sexy, that we’re going to use for a couple years and then toss away. We basically have dating relationships with our gadgets. Infrastructure is very different. Infrastructure operates for decades. And in this sense, we need to think about not dating infrastructure but actually marrying it. You know, waking up in bed with 30 to 40 years from now.

And so when people debate something like the Keystone XL Pipeline, they often talk about, well, look at all the jobs it’s going to create over the next couple years. But if we build the Keystone XL Pipeline, you better believe that for 30, 40, 50 years, the people owning it are going to work hard to make sure we’re continuing to use oil. And I think if we start to think in the time frames of several decades, it starts to look much less attractive.

ED: Christopher Jones is a history professor at Arizona State University. He’s the author of Roots of Power: Energy in Modern America.


BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today. But as always, we’re eager to keep the conversation. You’ll find us at There’s more on today’s topic there, as well as descriptions of the shows we have in the works.

One is about how Americans have thought about our national enemies. Another takes on the history of happiness. We’d love to be able to include your stories and ideas in these episodes. You can leave us a comment there, or send an email to Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

PETER: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We have help from Henry Wiencek. Special thanks this week to Paul Matysek, Edith Hall, Abby Ellen, Lana May Noon, Henry Gonzales, Eddie Melendez, and Union Docks. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by the History Channel. History made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.