Brief History of the Forklift, the Pallet’s Friend

In today’s modern world it’s hard to imagine large warehouses and big industry operating without the use of the forklift. This now-essential tool of industry, paired with the shipping pallet, allows for the efficient and economical transportation of large amounts of freight as a single unit.

Prior to the 20th century barrels, crates, or bundles of goods were lifted and moved by hand or using chains and winches. Around the turn of the century, wooden platform trucks began to replace hoists for moving materials across level surfaces. Soon, electric motors were added to the wooden trucks making it easier to quickly move freight around warehouses.

During World War I, the war and the resulting labour shortage helped to spur innovations in materials handling. Machines were built with electric motors that could raise and lower a platform. These early lift trucks did not have hydraulics or forks. Manual labour was used to move the freight the short distance on and off the platform. A bomb-handling crane that was built during the World War I is considered the first electric lift truck.

Forklift raises pallet onto warehouse shelf

In 1917, Clark Companies, an axel manufacturer in the US, developed what they called the Tructractor to move engine parts at their warehouse. Visitors to the Clark warehouse were so impressed with the device they began ordering Tructractors to use at their own facilities. This was followed in 1920 with the first industrial truck to use hydraulic power to lift its load. In 1923, what is now considered the first fork lift was produced. It included raising forks and an elevated mast. It operated using a ratchet and pinion system.

In the 1930s the Hyster lift truck was introduced. It could lift 2.7 metric tonnes and had a two-speed manual transmission. However, these new forklift trucks did not immediately gain widespread use. The major freight shipping breakthrough came in the late 1930s when the standardized pallet was developed. It replaced wooden skids that could not be stacked. By standardising the size and adding a bottom support, these new pallets allowed loads to be stacked and easily organised. This led directly to the increased use of the forklift.

The shipping industry experienced another influx of innovation during World War II. With labourers again in short supply, there was tremendous pressure to find more efficient ways to load and unload the massive quantities of materials needed for the war effort. New electric forklift models were developed that were capable of lasting a full eight-hour shift before needing to be recharged.

After the war the rebuilding efforts and blooming economy led to warehouses needing to house larger shipments of products. Rather than expand warehouses, many manufacturers began to stack pallets higher within their warehouses. This required more powerful forklifts able to manoeuvre in congested areas. New models were introduced that could fit into narrower aisles and lift materials up to 15 metres above the ground. Narrow aisle forklifts revolutionised the industry allowing warehouses to pack more materials into the same sized space. These small, manoeuvrable forklifts made it easier to load pallets into container trucks and facilitate individual pallet shipments to and from smaller businesses. The evolution of the forklift has made it easy for even small business to utilise pallet shipments. With today’s technology it is quick and easy for businesses and individuals to economically ship pallets of freight across the United Kingdom and throughout the world.