Forklifts’ Past, Present, and Future

Photo courtesy of Bryan Van Devender via

Forklifts of one type or another have been used by industry for more than a century. And given their versatility and efficiency, they are likely to be used for at least another 100 years.

The first version of the modern forklift was actually a battery-powered vehicle that was used to move luggage on train platforms back in 1906. Seeing the benefits of this new labor-saving device was the US military, which quickly incorporated these new-fangled “lift trucks” into its fleet of support vehicles.

Unrecognizable Compared to Today’s Forklifts

The earliest generation of forklift bears little resemblance to today’s vehicles. Rather than using double forks, most featured a crane-like extension that could lift heavy load balanced with a counterweight.

The widespread use of forklifts really began during World War I. Desperate to free up more soldiers for frontline battle in the European theater, US military planners invested heavily in lift trucks that could move thousands of tons of materials and supplies quickly and efficiently using a single operator.

When the war finally ended, many industries recognized the efficiencies created by these valuable machines and began to incorporate them into their commercial operations.

Development of the Modern Forklift

One of the most important developments in the history of the forklift came not from improvements to the vehicle itself, but to the pallets they lifted.

During World War II, a US Navy Supply Corps officer named Normal Cahners realized that the wooden pallets used to carry supplies into battle would be much more efficient if they could be picked up from all four sides rather than just from the front or back.

Cahners’ invention, known as the “four-way pallet“, featured twin cutouts on all four sides. Using this new type of pallets, forklifts doubled their productivity practically overnight.

The pallet design invented by Cahners out of necessity has remained essentially unchanged even today. Both wood and plastic pallets of all sizes feature cutouts on every size for simplified lifting and transporting.

Worldwide Pallets

Currently, there are an estimated two billion pallets in use in the US alone. While many businesses are switching to more environmentally friendly (and longer lasting) plastic pallets, wood remains the primary building material for pallets.

In fact, the wood used for pallet production accounts for an estimated 40 percent of the total hardwood lumber production in the US.

An estimated 500 million new wood pallets are built each year in the US. That’s enough wood to cover an area the size of New York City ten times over.

But the future may belong to plastic pallets. Because they are lighter, more durable, and can be nested on docks and warehouses, they take up less space and can be more cost-effective to utilize.

Pallets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They remain a critical tool in the global supply chain.

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