History of the Forklift: How Well Do You Know It?
The history of the forklift begins at the end of the 1800s, as the American Civil War came to a close and the Gilded Age was in full swing. The industry was on the rise in the U.S., and factories and warehouses were taking over in urban areas, rapidly expanding in size and scope. Until the turn of the century, most of this growth had typically occurred in a horizontal direction; as inventory and manufacturing operations increased, the footprint of a given building expanded out, not up. But as metropolitan areas became dense and manufacturing continued to accelerate further, both building and shelf height needed to adapt to a more practical way of storing and handling merchandise.
Reaching tall shelves and manipulating objects in a vertical direction had typically taken place using winches and pulley systems. Hoisting, rather than lifting, had long been the preferred approach for stacking and handling. But the safety and practicality of this method became limited in an increasingly vertical environment, and roughly around 1900, the first vertical lift trucks, known as platform trucks, were born.
These machines were wheeled carts with wooden platforms that could be raised and lowered within a very limited range, and during the next few decades, traction batteries and electric motors were added to increase power and capability. The earliest version of the modern seated counterbalanced truck was developed in 1917 for their own internal use. Known at the time as a “Tructractor,” this precursor to the forklift was a tractor that featured a flatbed or a cargo box that was manually loaded and unloaded. After visitors to the plant showed interest in using the truck for their own operations, they requested the company to manufacture additional units with various advancements.
By 1920, hydraulic motors were introduced, and in 1923, an electric truck was developed with an elevated mast and forks to specifically lift loads: this was the first forklift. Yet even with their modern advancements, these early lift trucks were limited in their utility and popularity until 1930. That year marked the arrival of the standardized pallet, which streamlined the process of lifting, loading, and stacking. World War II brought on a sudden rapid increase in the need for lifting and loading equipment, and throughout the 1940s, lift trucks moved quickly through multiple evolutions and became a standard sight in almost every material handling workplace.
Newer models arriving in the 1950s increased in versatility and power and decreased in size, bringing on the arrival of the narrow aisle forklift, a machine that could handle heavy loads while manoeuvring in very small spaces. Since then, forklifts have continued to evolve with continuous improvements to engine controls and load capacity, as well as operator safety and comfort.
In our current century, lift truck technology has progressed alongside modern notions such as fleet management solutions and sustainability best practices. Designers and product development teams are focusing their attention on making lift trucks even safer and increasing their fuel efficiency. From hydrogen-powered and low-emission forklifts to “intelligent” forklifts directly connected to inventory management systems, today’s manufacturers continue to research new ways to help the material handling industry.