I admit that I've always taken the existence of shipping containers for granted (because I've never lived in a time without them - kind of like kids and the internet today). Thanks to a couple omidyar.net members (mentioned below), I'm now seeing containers everywhere. I'm even paying more attention to stories in the news about the effects of containers on our everyday life (cost of shipping goods, the plan to enlarge the Panama Canal to allow the now way-too-big container ships through from China to the East Coast of the United States, etc).
The book The Box : How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (link to Amazon) was published just last month, and here's an excerpt from the dust jacket to bring us all up to speed:
In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.
Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive histroty of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world.
It's a shame the book doesn't include the innovative uses of containers by our fellow omidyar.net members to make the world a better place: Ray B-r-o-s-s-e-u-k and David "Kids in Cans" Bales. That's a story I'd like to read more about.