by Cesar Ducreat
Are such revolutions comparable with each other? Do they obey similar mechanisms, in terms of spatio-temporal diffusion, port competition, and hierarchical dynamics, shipping network reorganization? Research on this is only at its eve.
Our most recent research provides preliminary results using the archival corpus of the Lloyd’s List Shipping Index. This source is the only possible one to offer a global focus.
Surprisingly, since the first edition of the Shipping Index (1735), only two research papers mentioned this source in the entire literature on shipping, ports, and beyond. Henry Rees (1955) considered it as a possible source for schools to study, and Douglas K. Fleming (1968) said this “might be” a very useful source for research. Yet, it covers the great majority of the world fleet and details the daily movements of the insured vessels between ports of the world. After the tedious extraction of one single 100-pages printed volume every five years or so between 1880 and 2008, the database comprises 836,171 movements connecting 5,619 ports over nearly 130 years.
A dedicated OCR software (Optical Character Recognition) has been created by the CNRS for this purpose. Research is ongoing to further consolidate this database and enrich the results as the potential is huge. Several publications of the ERC World Seastems project (2013-2019) have already been published using the Shipping Index but the diagrams posted here today are new (for more info here).
The respective shift from sail to steam and from breakbulk (general cargo) to containers can’t be directly compared as the first concerns a propulsion mechanism and the second is about the way cargo is packed onboard. Common points emerge however when looking at the consequences on ports and shipping networks, which are already well related in the literature in history, economics, and geography. This motivates further dialogues among disciplines. The rapidity of the shifts, as seen in the first figure, had been a challenge for ports to adapt to such transitions. The changing technology had, in both cases, enormous impacts on speed (terminal cargo handling for containers, maritime navigation for steamers) and on infrastructures, due to the great economies of scale permitted and the growing size of ships. Both transitions also provided more safety.
Last but not least, the two last figures show that Asia as a whole had been each time the most impregnated region or early mover. Western powers’ commercial appetite motivated the launch of the best-equipped vessels towards their targeted “market” (West Asia for steamers – British Empire; East Asia for containers – factory of the world). Africa and West Asia are late adopters of containerization, while Oceania and the Americas were late adopters of the steam engine.
Different regions reacted differently to innovation, depending on natural conditions, market access, etc. with a varying degree of resilience. Future works shall look at shipping network structure and port hierarchies.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n.  “World Seastems”.