The Evolution of the Forklift Truck

The evolution of the forklift truck was not merely two or three different designs molded into one perfect machine. Instead, its evolution was a series of different transformations among periods of change in the U.S. From the beginning, the forklift altered in form, specifications, size, technology and power options to meet the new demands of our country.

From its early origins in the late 1800s as a simple hoist to the World Wars and modern versions of hybrid-powered technology, the forklift was naturally born out of necessity. Back in the day, forklifts were made of chains and winches, which gave way to wooden platform trucks, and later, electric-motored and battery powered machines.

Also known as Fork Trucks, they are controlled by a licensed operator and have the power to lift and move heavy loads a short distance. With a pronged device in the front to raise and lower items on wooden pallets, the industrial truck may be fitted with different attachments. Each forklift class is designed for certain types of loads, working conditions and industries.

For example, Class 1 is known as Electric Motor Rider Trucks. Compared to Class 7 — Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks — the Rider Trucks are built for indoor use and smooth surfaces, while Class 7 forklifts are designed for difficult outdoor environments. Their fuel sources may vary anywhere from gas, propane, diesel and natural gas to other energy types such as battery-powered and fuel cell.

More than 150,000 forklifts are purchased by material handling buyers each year and are found in almost every warehouse operation. Companies like Clarke and Yale gave way for revolutionized lifts which have become the most prevalent operating machine in industries such as construction sites, recycling operations, dockyards and warehouses.

Continue reading to learn the complete history of forklift trucks and how McCall Handling may help you find the appropriate machine to fit your demands.

Forklifts in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

The history of the forklift began in 1887 when the first material-handling equipment was made from iron axles and wheels, known as a two-wheel hand truck. It was an effort to pick up heavy loads without using manual labor. Of course, in a time where nothing else was known other than lifting with your back, it was a huge revelation.

In an attempt to combine horizontal and vertical motion to lift a platform several inches off the ground, the two-wheel hand truck improved to the four-wheel baggage wagon, which was used on railways.

Several years later in 1906 and 1909, the first powered platform truck was created when an official from the PA Railroad system added storage battery power to the existing machines. At this time, controls were placed in a position where the operator had to stand in front of the machines. The first all-steel lift truck was also developed, which first appeared in paper factories.

By the start of WWI the forklift’s evolution accelerated:


  • Machines were designed with electrical platforms that could be raised or lowered.


  • The war effort encouraged innovations such as the bomb-handling crane with powerlifting mechanics, which was considered the first electric lift truck.
  • Lift trucks were designed with no hydraulics or forks, designed to lift loads only a few inches laterally.
  • The Model D Willamette Utility Carrier was powered by a Continental or Hercules engine.


  • The Tructractor was produced by the Clark Company — that manufactured axles — to move materials around their factory.
  • People began to notice Clark’s Tructractor and started to place orders for their own models.
  • Clark’s invention is known as the forerunner of the seated counterbalanced truck.

During WWI, the electrical platforms that transformed into the Tructractor made loading easier and more efficient than ever before for war materials such as weapons, machines, planes, tanks, medical resources, metal, etc. And because of the labor shortage during the war, the lift trucks were essential for effective production.

In 1919, high lift trucks were built to raise platforms several feet. In return, it created a greater range of operation. The introduction of forks and rams also provided a means of handling different objects at once, and the shortening of the wheelbase was an improvement that didn’t sacrifice the lift’s stability.

The year 1920 was when the first hydraulic-powered lift was introduced, and in 1923, Yale became the first company to use equipment that could extend beyond the height of the truck. Yale’s forklifts were designed to lift loads off the ground, while an elevated mast lifted material well beyond the reach of previous designs. Yale’s invention was considered the first forklift truck.

Forklifts in the Mid-1900s

The mid-1900s proved to be an era that boosted the entire design and technology of the forklift industry. While forklifts in the early 1900s were forming as new inventions, the trucks didn’t quite surge into popularity until a breakthrough in 1930.

In 1930, the forklifts allowed distributors and manufacturers to efficiently move heavy loads of materials, and also for the materials to be stacked uniformly. As the use of forklifts increased, so did their long-term running hours. Because the trucks were being used more continuously, rechargeable batteries that could last up to eight hours were implemented into the design.

Between the years 1935 and 1936, the BT cushion tire lift truck was developed. Its telescoping mast and hoist cable had the power to lift a young elephant — and for that time, that weight stability was a major improvement. The Hyster lift truck was also produced during this time.

In 1939, WWII influenced the increase in forklift truck production, similar to that of WWI. Efficiency was needed to load vast quantities of war goods. The production of forklifts increased along with the essential requirement for war materials, and as such, the trucks began to work a full day without being recharged.

Forklift truck developments between 1939 and 1945 were as follows:

  • About 25,000 forklifts were in use during the war effort in 1941.
  • The demand for pallets grew, and the need for forklifts became widespread.
  • The War Production Board released funds in 1941 to supply the purchase of lift trucks for the WWII effort.
  • Because of the labor shortage and limited warehouse space, the war required full use of equipment to save time, labor and space.
  • The limitations paved the way for an increase of forklift production.

In 1950, warehouses began expanding upward and horizontally. Naturally, more powerful, sturdy and different sized lifts started to hit the market. To reach in between small warehouse aisles, narrow forklifts were able to revolutionize the warehouse industry. Because more power was required to reach higher shelving and to lift heavier materials, the trucks were developed to lift loads up to 50 feet high.

Safety became a major concern in 1955 as people realized objects could fall from high elevations, such as 50 feet, and could injure truck operators. Manufacturers began to offer load backrests, which are meant to keep each load in place while the lift maneuvers between different distances. A rise in operator cages also began to prevent falling materials from harming the operators. The load brackets and operator cages became standard features in forklifts.

Forklifts in the late 1900s and Early 2000s

Forklift history in 1980 began with truck and load-balancing technology to keep the vehicles from tipping. With an increase in height abilities and heavier lifting capabilities in 1950, it became vital to guarantee the safety of forklifts that were becoming top-heavy. The balanced technology and operator safety restraints were more of a concern during this time.

In the early 2000s, manufacturers were more concerned about forklifts’ environmental impacts and emissions. In 2001-2004, new standards for forklifts with large spark-ignitions were introduced. Off-road diesel engines also have regulations from the US Environmental Protection Agency. In 2006, Tier 3 standards were phased in for engines between 50hp and 750hp.

The harsh emissions of diesel lifts are hazardous for indoor environments, compared to electric or other forms of powered engines that are more human-friendly. Other forms include battery powered, electric, propane and natural gas. Companies continue to develop and renovate different engine types to improve forklift efficiency, size, power and stability. All these efforts to reduce emissions have several benefits: preventing hospitalization from exposure, avoiding premature death, creating safer work environments and adding revenue from productivity.

Other modern improvements include:

  • Operator presence systems — These systems keep forklifts from moving and operating without someone seated at the controls.
  • Improved visibility — Sleeker forklift designs provide greater visibility and help prevent accidents. Operators now have more visibility in front, behind, above and adjacent to their truck.
  • Stability enhancements — Improved safety features help to prevent forklifts from tipping over. The placement of outriggers and counterbalance weights contribute to safer solidity.
  • Telematics — This feature refers to the wireless transmission of data. The technology can help managers monitor an operator’s driving habits or help them analyze data.

The future of forklifts will see continuous improvements and evolutions in the safety aspects of loading equipment. It is also predicted that laser-guided collision-avoidance systems may be adapted for forklift applications.

As each operator must be certified and trained in operating a forklift truck, hands-on training tools will become more popular to enhance employee understanding of forklift operations. Because not all forklifts perform the same duties or function in the same environments, learning the differences is vital to proper safety.

The Forklift’s Impact in History

The forklift has come a long way since its original design in the early 1900s. As seen throughout history, its largest impact was during World War I and World War II. While labor shortages occurred, forklifts increased the efficiency and productivity within the industrial workforce.

Forklifts were able to carry loads of materials for weapons, machines, planes, tanks and medical resources. Without truck lifts, it would have been a several-man show with only back-breaking work to supply the war effort. The equipment used during the wars could lift greater weights and transport larger loads than a single human. Although manufacturers had to fight to receive materials to build forklifts during WWI, the grant improved the productivity of the war.

Throughout history, we also saw the forklift being used in several industries such as warehouses, railways, construction sites, dockyards, etc. Warehouses use forklift trucks to store materials in rows of high shelving —anywhere from paper and plastic materials to heavier products such as wood and metal. Railways, recycling sites and dockyards use the equipment to transports materials of all kinds without using hard, manual labor.

Not only do forklifts have the power to transport heavy loads in warehouses, but the trucks also perform well in the construction environment — hauling cinder blocks, elevating personnel and transporting other necessary equipment. No matter what industry they are used in, forklifts provide efficiency and accuracy with less downtime.

The history of forklift trucks has proven the natural progression of our need for stronger, more resourceful and diverse means of transporting heavy loads. Without the heavy-duty equipment, our work days would be longer and more strenuous. Without the presence of forklifts, history would have to be rewritten. The revolutionary aspects of our country would have been more time-consuming, more strenuous and more scattered without forklift trucks.

Your Forklift Needs at McCall Handling Co

Serving the Mid-Atlantic region for more than 65 years, McCall Handling offers you a range of forklift equipment options. We provide you with the option of buying new or used machines, while also giving you the opportunity to rent a forklift if it’s more convenient for your job.

Because forklift trucks are a key component in any industrial job, proper operation is essential in keeping your workers safe and from preventing hazardous accidents around the workplace. McCall runs an operating training program for professionals to receive adequate forklift preparation. With proper training, you can help reduce downtime, liabilities, damages and accidents, as well as improve the efficiency of your business.

McCall also offers forklift servicing where our certified technicians fix your equipment correctly the first time with no hassle. We offer services on propane and electric forklifts, and we repair forklift brands such as Yale, Toyota, Hyster and Cat®. Our certified training implementations allow each employee to be up-to-date with modern certifications, equipment handling techniques and proper diagnostic tasks.

Contact McCall Handling if you are looking to purchase a forklift, seeking forklift servicing or need forklift training and certification.