Rudimentary versions of the forklift first began appearing in the 19th century during the industrial revolution. This period saw the introduction of machines to the manufacturing process, replacing the more time-consuming and inefficient hand tools that had come before.
In 1887, one of the earliest versions of the forklift was built; a lifting truck that could lift its loaded platform a few inches off the ground and allowed for both horizontal and vertical movement of cargo. Almost 20 years later in 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad project introduced a battery-operated platform luggage mover, creating what was probably the world’s first powered cargo truck.
Whilst it was not known at the time, such innovations would go on to be crucial in the creation of the world’s first forklift. However, there is one more invention that is largely recognised as the direct predecessor of the forklift: the Tructractor.
Introduced to the market by The Clark Material Handling Company in 1917, the Tructractor was a vehicle designed specifically to lift cargo in warehouses and provided the world with the first seated counterbalanced truck.
6 years later in 1923, the first traditional forklift arrived on the scene. Yale created and introduced an electric truck that incorporated a vertical mast and raising forks. Up to this point lift trucks had not been “forked” and the cargo had to be manually loaded, and so the invention helped revolutionise the manufacturing industry.
Due to a labour shortage throughout the First World War and the immediate aftermath, the forklift had to make up for a lack of manpower in factories and warehouses across the UK. Importantly, it was this urgent demand for improved productivity amongst the remaining workforce that led to Yale and Clark’s inventions.
Fine-tuning the Forklift
The popularity of forklifts skyrocketed after the two world wars, but there were a few tweaks that had to be made before it could become the finished article that it is today. First, it needed to be made smaller, as it was too large to navigate the narrow corridors of a warehouse. Second, it had to be able to reach greater heights.
After this fine-tuning occurred, the next step was to address the vehicle’s lack of health and safety features. The 1950s and 60s subsequently saw the introduction of overhead guards, backrests, and various other features.
A Greener Future?
Fast-forward to today, forklifts have continued to have to change and adapt, mainly for environmental reasons. Exhaust emission standards now regulate these machines, meaning that AC powered forklifts are beginning to completely push out their gas-powered counterparts. It is now likely that fuel cell technology will now be at the forefront of any new developments that this ever-changing vehicle undergoes.