The aim of the paper is to present and analyse two periods in which the international shipping industry faced disruptive changes, where the market, the technology and the business models were characterized by dramatic and fundamental transformations. The first was the change from sail and wood to steam and iron at the end of the nineteenth century; the second, the great shipping crises at the end of the twentieth century.
Whilst the former was caused primarily by technological development, the latter was more related to changes in markets and institutions. Both led to a shift in vessel ownership and profoundly transformed the manner of operation in international shipping. As comparative advantages shifted, many companies – and regions – were forced out of the business or decided to withdraw. We compare the two periods along three main dimensions: institutions, technologies, and business models. These three dimensions together form the basis for the competitive advantages that companies, regions and maritime nations had during the periods of changes and quite naturally, co-evolved over time. The key question of this paper is how and why these dimensions affected the transition of this particular sector.