Modern forklifts, the backbones of industry, can have their origins traced back to the middle nineteenth century through the early 20th century when they were nothing more than counterweight and pulley systems. This often overlooked yet incredibly important aspect of manufacturing is so important that more than 150,000 forklifts are delivered to material handling buyers each year. Before the forklift that we know today was used laborers worked with manually powered hoists to lift heavy loads. 1906 saw the advent of the first battery powered platform trucks. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the company that used these first at their Altoona train station. Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, a company based in the United Kingdom developed different types of large equipment handling machines during World War I because there was a labor shortage. Around the same time in 1917 Clark Material Handling Company in Kentucky invented seated counterbalanced forklifts. Yale & Towne, a well-known forklift company today, joined the lift truck market shortly after in 1920. With the introduction of hydraulic power and electric power in the 1920s and 1930s forklifts became more powerful and grew in popularity in the rapidly industrializing Western hemisphere.
World War II increased the use of forklifts to help in manufacturing and production for the war effort. This led to standard pallet sizes and more efficient methods for product storage in warehouses. Greater heights had to be reached in warehouses and forklifts had to be more maneuverable in tighter spaces. For example, the British company, Lansing Bagnall, developed the first ‘narrow aisle’ electric reach truck. Often time’s innovations in technology lead to changes in the working world. As such, after the development of the ‘narrow aisle’ truck warehouses changed their design and were constructed with slimmer aisles and higher ceilings. This important innovation led to increased storage size.
In the post-war 1950s and 1960s the main focus of forklift manufacturers and operators became safety. The increased heights and weights of loads led to a predictable increase in accidents. This was the era that saw modern developments such as operator cages also known as overhead guards that protected operators. Safety remains one of the main concerns of forklift operations today. In the 1980s we saw the development and standardization of operator restraint systems. Load balancing technology was also developed to help from vehicles tipping over.
As well as safety the other main concern of forklifts is environmental most importantly the amount of emissions that forklifts release. Development of electric forklifts is the main way that manufacturers have found they can lower emissions levels. There is still a setback with electric forklifts and that is that they are not as powerful as their diesel or gas powered counterparts. In the future we may be utilizing Hydrogen fuel cells that have been in development since 2000. As we move forward with technology so too will the forklift. This often underappreciated tool has been, and will continue to be, one of our most utilized assets moving forward.