What Inspired The Creation Of The Forklift?

What Inspired The Creation Of The Forklift?

The forklift is just over a century old, but during this time has seen constant transformation and innovation, to the point that in many cases the only link between the original lift trucks and modern forklifts are the forks themselves.

Whilst businesses may opt for forklift hire to handle logistics, cargo transportation and moving items around a warehouse, early forklifts were often used to handle particularly heavy and difficult cargo.

 However, whilst there were prototypes and unique approaches to the problem of handling heavy loads, there would ultimately be one event that shaped the course of not only human history but also the history of logistics.


Early Prototypes

Before the forklift, lifting and moving objects relied on largely similar methods to the ones that had been used for thousands of years. Cranes, hoists, carts and simple machines, powered by many strong workers and labourers who would do the literal heavy lifting.

The first sign that this could change came about in the Age of Sail, as a way to help dockworkers lift heavy goods onto boats.

In the 18th century, many dock labourers were young boys and they struggled to lift the large sacks of spices and other exotic goods by hand. The solution was simple but so elegant that it is still used in warehouses to this day. 

The dolly, or sack truck, was one of the simplest machines ever made, being effectively an l-shaped lever on wheels, but it worked to brilliant effect at helping workers lift heavy goods without overexerting themselves.

A motorised version of this principle would be prototyped in 1887, which could lift a loading platform a few inches off of the ground to carry loads. It was an interesting idea but its weakness and limited capacity made it largely unhelpful.

More powerful, battery-powered versions of this system were introduced in 1906 and used on the Pennsylvania Railroad to move luggage from the train to the platform.

Despite many early systems having limited, if any, loading systems, the fact that workers only had to lift heavy cargo a few inches rather than the entire length of a trip made it a labour-saving revolution. 

Less than ten years later, that revolution would be put to the test. 


Forklifts And The War To End All Wars

The First World War changed everything, but to explain how would require an entire library. However, the Great War is incredibly important to the story of forklifts for one main reason.

Labourers, dockworkers and other strong workers were drafted in huge numbers into the army, and so to ensure work could continue at a rate that helped the war effort, engineering was used to fill the gap. 

The first electric lift truck that lifted higher than a few inches was designed for war; it was technically a crane that handled bombs and used a power lifting mechanism that no system had beforehand.

The first modern, counterbalanced forklift truck was the Tructractor, made by American manufacturer Clark in 1917 for use in their axle plant. However, when other companies saw it in action, they wanted to buy the Tructator themselves, and so he put it into production.

In 1920, Clark created the first truck with hydraulic power, but Yale in 1923 created the first electric truck that had an elevated mast, raising forks and a ratchet and pinion system, becoming the first modern forklift truck.