In recent months, BBC Radio 4’s history of the world in a hundred objects has captivated audiences with the story of humanity as told through the things we’ve made. Narrated impeccably by Neil MacGregor, the objects range in date from the beginning of human history around 2 million years ago through to the present day.

Here, we take up the story of Logistics with our own top ten of the objects that have transformed the movement of goods from manual handling to the most sophisticated technologies of today.

As the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski observed: the remains of marketplaces, ports, agoras and vestiges of such trade routes as the Silk Road, the Amber Route or, the Trans-Saharan caravan route illustrate; these were places where people met to exchange ideas as well as merchandise and discovered shared goals and values. This is where people discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other or, the foreigner – who they could chose to go to war with; exclude themselves from or, trade with and open up a dialogue. And the connectivity between these places has been one of the great levellers and, multipliers of history. Here’s the ten:

1. Amphora. An amphora is a type of ceramic vase with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body. The Latin word amphora is, derived from the Greek amphoreus (αμφορεύς), it is a compound word combining amphi- (“on both sides”) plus phoreus (“carrier”) referring to the vessel’s two carrying handles on opposite sides.

The Ancient World's TEU

Amphora dated to around 4800 BCE have been found in the Neolithic site of Banpo, China. In the West, Amphorae first appeared on the Syrian coast around 3500 BCE and spread around the ancient world, being used by the ancient world as the principal means for transporting and storing grapes, olive oil, wine, grain, fish, and other commodities. They were produced on an industrial scale from Greek times and used around the Mediterranean until about the 7th century. Wooden and skin containers seem to have supplanted amphorae thereafter

2. A Horreum was a granary or public warehouse designed for the storeage and preservation of goods during the ancient Roman period. By the decline of the Empire, Rome had over 300 horreum storing grain, olive oil, wine, food and even clothing and marble. Rome’s giant Horrea Galbae covered an area of some 225,000 square feet – which compares with the arena in the colusseum at no more than twenty nine thousand square feet.

This vast network, integrated with Egyptian convoys and orchestrated by mathematically complicated schedules meant that Rome’s Imperial citizens ate bread from Africa and fish sauce brewed in Britain or, the Black Sea (Empires of Food – Fraser, Rimas, 2010). When the emperor Septimus died in 211 AD, it is reported that Rome’s network of Horrea held seven year’s worth of food for enough food for it’s  million strong population. The artificial hill of Monte Testaccio, which stands behind the site of the Horrea Galbae, is estimated to contain the remains of at least 53 million olive oil amphorae in which some 6 billion litres (1.58 billion gallons) of oil were imported.

The horrea of Rome, and its ports of Ostia and the recently excavated Portus were usually two storeys high featuring ramps rather than staircases and the ground floor was raised on pillars to reduce damp and contamination of foodstuffs. Built with walls up to 1 metre thick; there were few windows and even the largest horrea had no more than three doors with sophisticated locks. Many horrea appear to have served as great trading areas with rows of small shops, or tabernae, off a central courtyard; some may have been fairly elaborate – a modern day Shopping Mall.

As population climbs to 9 billion by 2050 – demanding a 70 per cent rise in food output – there are significant learnings for us today. It was not just the Barbarians that put paid to the Roman Empire. The horrea system illustrates clearly that it is not just growing food that matters but the ability to store it and move it around. Landlocked Rome was served by the port of Ostia and the minute that became choked or the flow from the Empire petered out, people in Rome starved.

3. Camel. The camel is the only animal to have replaced the wheel (mainly in North Africa) where the wheel had already been established. The camel did not lose that distinction until the wheel was combined with the internal combustion engine in the 20th century. Up to that point, the ship of the desert, was used by the Persians as baggage trains for arrows and equipment. As early as 1800 BC, trade routes from Asia and Africa crossed the Arabian Peninsula carrying spices, incense, gold, ivory, and silk on their way to Europe and the lands of the Fertile Crescent. Camels were used by the Nabateans in the first century BC, on their way from the Gulf of Aqaba to the trading capital of Petra in central Jordan. Camels were used by the Bedouin, whose warriors formed the nucleus of the Muslim armies that conquered the Byzantine and Persian Empires in the 7th century AD. War, trade, and civilization — all riding on the back of a hump.

4. Pigeon. The Egyptians and the Persians first used carrier pigeons 3,000 years ago. In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded the eponymous press agency, used a fleet of over 45 pigeons to deliver news and stock prices between Aachen and Brussels, the terminals of early telegraph lines.

War was the catalyst for greater use and the result of the Battle of Waterloo was first delivered by a pigeon to England. Pigeons were used in the Franco-Prussian War to carry mail between besieged Paris and the French unoccupied territory. Possibly the first regular air mail service in the world was Howie’s Pigeon-Post service from the Auckland, New Zealand to Great Barrier Island, starting in 1896.

Certainly the world’s first ‘airmail’ stamps were issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service from 1898 to 1908. Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Orissa State to provide emergency communication services following various natural disasters.

In March 2002, it was announced that India’s Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Orissa was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet.

Then, in September 2009, the pigeon fought back when a South African IT company, based in Durban, pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a data packed 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country’s biggest internet service provider, Telkom. A pigeon named Winston took an hour and eight minutes to carry the data 80 km (50 miles). Including downloading, it took two hours, six minutes, and 57 seconds for the data to arrive, the same amount of time it took to transfer 4% of the data over the ADSL.

5. Canals and the barges upon them. Irrigation canals, built in Mesopotania (modern day Iraq and Syria) circa 4000 BC, were the first examples and the Indus valley in modern day Pakistan and North India (circa 2600 BC) had sophisticated irrigation and storage systems developed, including the reservoirs built at Girnar in 3000 BC. Large canals for river transport were established in China as far back as  481-221 BC, the longest one of that period being the Hong Gou – the Canal of the Wild Geese.

Canals were important for industrial development. The greatest stimulus to canal system building came from the Industrial Revolution – with its need for cheap transport of unprecedented quantities of raw materials and manufactured items. For example, the Erie Canal in New York State is credited by economic historians with giving the growth boost needed for New York to eclipse Philadelphia as America’s largest port and city. However, with their complex systems of locks and high maintenance costs, the railways were able to replace the, as a viable option in the carriage of high-value items by the railways due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility. Barge and canal systems were nonetheless of great, perhaps even primary, economic importance until after World War I in Europe.

Large scale ship canals such as the Panama and Suez continue to operate for cargo transportation; as do European barge canals. Due to globalisation, they are becoming increasingly important, resulting in expansion projects in both cases.

Many countries are revisiting transport by all forms of inland waterways. According to the data of the Maritime Board (Morskaya Kollegiya) of the Russian Government for 2004, 136.6 million tons of cargo have been carried that year over Russia’s inland waterways, the total cargo transportation volume being 87,556.5 million ton-km.

Canals have found another use in the 21st century – as a conduit for fibre optic cabling network. This avoids costlier burying of cables alongside roadways.

6. Railway. With the English development of the steam engine, it was possible to construct mainline railways, and this gave the Industrial Revolution the speed that canals could not provide. The change from canals to railways allowed for “national markets” in which prices varied very little from city to city. Railways reduced the costs of shipping, and allowed for fewer lost goods. Studies have shown that the invention and development of the railway in Europe was one of the most important technological inventions of the late 19th century for the United States, without which, GDP would have been lower by 7.0% in 1890.
Note. The catalogue industry set up by the Sears company in the 19th c USA is an adjunct to this “object” and should have a place too. This is where a farmer or prospector could scan a catalogue for their jeans or a whole range of goods; order them and have them delivered by railroad. I was running out of options!

7. Dabawalla tiffin box. In an earlier post, the six sigma rated Dabawallas were covered in some detail. Here, the tiffin box and the manual handling system that has evolved to move them around is taken as a fine example of simply modal approaches in Emerging and Developing markets. The tiffin box and the dabawalla service demonstrate that low tech solutions have their place and is one of many such examples that could re-emerge as global population grows from 6 to 9 billion by 2050 and crowded urban spaces and environmental considerations place a greater premium on manual handling.

8. Stevedore hook. Budd Schulberg’s play On the Waterfront – later to be filmed with Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy – became a cult masterpiece. The drama takes place on the Hoboken Docks, New Jersey, in the 1950s. This was a self- contained city-state: 750 miles of shoreline, with 1800 piers handling 10,000 oceangoing ships, a million passengers and over 35 million tons of foreign cargo with a value of 8 billion dollars every year.

This was the time when dockers would be paid temptation money to keep whisky cargoes intact and, nothing moved unless the Mob or, a local equivalent in ports all over the world, allowed it. It was the era of break bulk before the container arrived to close up cargoes and the dockers, or longshoremen, would handle the goods with a hook that became a symbol of the quayside as well as an essential tool. For me, the film and the hook are synonymous with a time we have lost. Ports and docks all over the world stood apart from their cities and ships would take days to unload. Merchant marine would roam the quaysides set apart and immortalised in such songs as Jacques Brel’s In the Port of Amsterdam.

9. Containers. No history of revolutions should be written without a mention of April 26th 1956. This is the day when the Ideal X, a 10,572 gross registered tons tanker cleared New York Harbor and headed for Houston. Why?  With an adapted spar deck loaded with fifty-eight detachable highway trailers; these boxes – soon to be known as containers or TEUs (Twenty Foot Equivalents) – would become the standard and routine way to carry the vast majority of global cargo. Today, there are many container vessels carrying over 13,000 TEUs.

Containerisation was a revolutionary tipping point in more ways than as an alternative to bulk cargo; closed boxes being superior to the ubiquitous dockers hook. Containers threatened the status quo and, when one Union Leader was asked for a view on how the Unions should respond to the box his response was unequivocal – “sink the sonofabitch”.

The first years were characterised by constant boycotts and concessions given to the longshoremen. And then, the Vietnam War provided the volumes and the catalyst to demonstrate that containerisation was a viable alternative. Today, more than ten Chinese ports operate with over 20 million TEUs per year and, ports worldwide are geared to ever faster turnaround at the quayside.

The key shift in this revolution was to transform the concept of shipping as a port-to-port enterprise to an origin to destination, supply chain, process with the boxopolis of Shanghai being a link in a chain as opposed to being a destination in itself.

10. Computer. For centuries, trade was a function of the limitations of the physical movement of goods and many of the logistics objects we have highlighted improved on this. With containerisation and the computer revolution, the role of information – or, knowing what you have and where it is – became key. Information replaced inventory and this has opened up a number of possibilities with a succession of technological innovations improving visibility, traceability and performance from raw material to consumer. Today, wireless – and cloud computing – opens up even greater possibilities and, mobile phones could well be a significant addition to any future revised list of significant logistics objects.