The Early Years of Logistics

By Robyn Metcalfe

We increasingly want more information about our food. We want to see, at least once, the faces of those who bring food from fields to plates. The farther we’ve gotten from the farm, the more important transparency has become. To better understand a system that is largely invisible, we need an introduction to food logistics. History is a good place to begin.

Henri-Paul Motte painted Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps in “Passage du Rhône par l’armée d’Annibal” (1878). No one knows how the elephants crossed the river, but they played a key role in Hannibal’s logistics.

Henri-Paul Motte painted Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps in “Passage du Rhône par l’armée d’Annibal” (1878). No one knows how the elephants crossed the river, but they played a key role in Hannibal’s logistics.

Ever find yourself behind a double-parked truck? Most likely, it’s delivering food. Trucks covered with images of pizza or a cornucopia of vegetables make their way into the hearts of cities around the world daily, and we hardly take note — except when they block our way to work. But truckers aren’t the only ones who dispatch our daily food supply. Container ships, cargo planes, bicyclists, camels and trains all conjoin in one complex global supply chain.

Although the tracks of our food as it travels today are well hidden, the flow of the food supply chain has existed for millennia. Pack animals and olive-oil-bearing clay amphorae delivered food from source to consumption before the birth of Jesus. But logistics, the complex systems that optimize the flow of food, originated with Alexander the Great.

FORAGE AS FUEL

On this amphora, you see Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest and winemaking, drinking wine while satyrs make wine, illustrating the journey from vine to cup.

On this amphora, you see Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest and winemaking, drinking wine while satyrs make wine, illustrating the journey from vine to cup.

The concept of logistics appeared far earlier than the word. The word first appeared in the late 19th century to mean the art of moving and maneuvering armies, including their supplies and food. The first logisticians — working long before the 1800s — had to consider the seasonality of fodder, food for transport animals, the lack of roads for wheeled transport and the scarcity of ports, storage facilities, depots and communication networks.

During the fourth century BC, the Greek king Alexander the Great assembled an empire that stretched from Asia to Africa. His success was largely due to his understanding of logistics, the strategic movement of men and weapons that factored in harvest calendars, geography and the need for single points of control.

Other military commanders improved on Alexander’s strategies for moving food and materiel. For them, having seamless logistics was a combat strategy. When Hannibal Barca, a Punic commander from Carthage, crossed the Alps in 218 BC, more than 30 elephants joined his army. The imminent snowfall would slow their progress and make it impossible to reach their enemies in Italy. The logistics of moving his army and the food to feed his troops was complicated enough. But the challenge of feeding the animals that transported the food proved impossible.

“The Elements of the Science of War” appeared in 1811, written by an engineer named Wilhelm Muller. He wrote about military campaigns going back to 1667, citing the importance of balancing troop movements with the need for “victuals” and forage.

While today we move food to cities on various forms of wheeled and non-wheeled transport networks, our networks run on fossil fuel, not forage. Early logisticians were faced with the vagaries of growing seasons, changeable weather and the limited availability of enough forage to keep their equine and elephantine transport on their feet and moving. While we struggle to keep food cold and extend shelf life, those early logisticians had much more to contend with. Like no roads.

EARLY HIGHWAYS

Roman roads are mentioned in nearly every tourist guidebook. The Romans developed complex procurement and distribution of food supplies, mostly because the republic and then the empire did not produce enough food locally to feed its growing urban populations. While the Assyrians and Greeks knew how to feed their soldiers, it wasn’t until the Romans developed a complex system of roads, taxation and administration that the idea of optimizing the movement of food took shape. Roman roads and bridges show us how they distributed food across the empire.

Centuries later, when Napoleon led his Grand Armée to conquer Russia in 1812, he drew upon Greek and Roman logistics to enable his troops to stay in the field longer, sustained by a ready supply of food while destroying the supplies of their enemies. But his march on Stalingrad wasn’t so successful. The Cossacks in his path resorted to destroying food supplies along the way. Napoleon’s rations and forage for his animals were soon depleted as the Russian winter closed in. In the end, Napoleon lost almost 400,000 troops. His defeat precipitated his fall from power and the unraveling of the Napoleonic Empire. Logistics proved to be his nemesis.

THE SCIENCE OF LOGISTICS

As the Industrial Revolution mechanized much of civilian society, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the concept of the scientific management of process manufacturing. He promoted practices that optimized the workflow while eliminating waste. These included standardizing parts and practices as well as carefully measuring and maximizing the use of time and labor. Taylorism, as his theory was called, led to further developments that looked at how to produce and move products from factory to consumer. Food production was one of many processes that became Taylorized.

The food supply chain differs from other supply chains in its requirement for careful temperature control. The development of ice manufacturing and refrigeration led to the development of what is now called the cold chain. Entrepreneurs such as Augustus Swift revolutionized the meat supply chain, utilizing refrigerated rail cars and vertically integrating all aspects of meat production. 

Railroads began to move food across long distances beginning in the mid-19th century. Shipping containers, developed by Malcom McLean during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed how food moved on ships, trucks and railroads. The integration of these transport networks eventually became our international, intermodal food distribution network. When computers arrived during the early 1950s and 1960s, the idea of logical workflows got an extra push through the acceleration of data processing. The development of computer-based forecasting systems and materials requirements planning came next. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that supply chain management became a thing, leading to the emergence of supply chain departments and centers in academic institutions. And now, food logistics has its own professional organizations, conferences and publications.

Look for this historical narrative to go into hyperdrive as railroads, computers, tracking devices, drones and robots bring new speed, safety and personalization to our daily meal.