Which Came First the Pallet or the Forklift?

Old Forklift

We often take for granted that we live in a complex world made possible through world-class logistics. Pallets, boxes, and forklifts make it all happen.

Pallets Move the World”

Pallets and Forklifts“Pallets move the world®” is the byline of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. Used for storing and distributing product in virtually all industries where products are physically transported – whether by means of trucking, freight trains, overseas ships, or air carriers – pallets can easily carry a load of 1,000 kg (2,205 lb).

Today, over half a billion pallets are manufactured each year. About two billion pallets are in use across the U.S. alone, working to move 80% of goods throughout our nation. The majority of these pallets, about 95%, are made of wood; about 2% are plastic; 2% are wood composite; and less than 1% are cardboard/corrugated.

We easily can concur that wooden pallets carry the load. But to answer the question of which came first, the pallet or the forklift, depends on how we define “pallet.”

The Definition of “Pallet”

PalletsDictionary.com defines pallet as: a small, low, portable platform on which goods are placed for storage or moving, as in a warehouse or vehicle.

The Pallet Evolved From the Skid

The evolution of the pallet starts with the skid, or sled. The skid had no center supports and was lifted by a single lift platform. Today’s pallet is a reusable packaging item that includes center stringers or blocks and a bottom deck and is handled by forks to lift and transport the load.

Skids go back to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia at least as far back as the 1st millennium BCE. Per author Peter Roger Stuart Moorey in Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Eisenbrauns, 1999), canal-builders may have used simple means, such as skids, to transport materials in the construction of the Aqueduct of Jerwan, a part of the larger Atrush Canal built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib between 703 and 690 BCE.1

So What Gave Rise to Today’s Pallet?

Gilbert P. Dempsey and David G. Martens, both USDA Forest Service researchers, advised two factors led to the real rise of the pallet. The first was the 1937 invention of gas-powered forklift trucks, which “allowed goods to be moved, stacked, and stored with extraordinary speed and versatility.” The second factor was the needs of World War II logistics operations – tens of millions of pallets were employed.

“Looking to improve turnaround times for materials handling [during WWII], a Navy Supply Corps officer named Norman Cahners invented the “four-way pallet.” This relatively minor refinement, which featured notches cut in the side so that forklifts could pick up pallets from any direction, doubled material-handling productivity per man.”2

The pallet has basically stayed the same since WWII. The most notable change, used throughout Europe and adopted by Costco is the block pallet. Block pallets are essentially an improvement on the four-way pallet. The deck boards rest on sturdy blocks, rather than long cross boards, or stringers, which make them even easier for forklifts and pallet jacks to pick up from any angle.

Forklifts Power Global Storage Efficiencies

Forklift in a warehouseIf “pallets move the world” then forklifts power global storage efficiencies. Used as a materials handling vehicle designed to move loads by means of steel forks inserted under a load, the forklift is known as one of the most important industrial innovations of modern time. An essential part of today’s supply chain market, forklifts have a lifting capacity of up to 48 tons and up to 670 inches in height.

Today, over 150,000 forklifts are delivered to material handling buyers each year in the U.S. And per Josh Bond’s article “Top 20 Lift truck suppliers, 2013” of Modern Materials Handling, “in 2013 alone the top 20 manufacturers worldwide posted sales of $30.4 billion with 944,405 machines sold.”

The Forklift Evolved From the Hoist

Old CraneThe evolution of the forklift, lift truck, starts with the hoist, essentially chains and winches. Hoists were the primary means of lifting and moving heavy items in the late 1800s. With the turn of the 20th century came wooden platform trucks. Introduced in 1920 was the first industrial truck to use hydraulic power to lift its load. During the 1920s, several manufacturers entered the market exploring new designs.

In 1923, what is considered today as the first forklift, Yale introduced an electric truck with raising forks and an elevated mast. The lift worked via a ratchet and pinion system. Then in 1937 came gas-powered forklift trucks. Since the first introduction of the forklift truck, one of the most noticeable changes has been the addition of safety components like the protective cab.

So What Gave Rise to Today’s Forklift?

Old ForkliftThe rise of the forklift mirrors that of the pallet. Both WWI and WWII spurred the use of lift trucks, mainly due to the shortage of labor. During and following WWII, more efficient methods for materials handling in warehouses were being implemented.

And with the increased popularity of the pallet came the need for more numerous and versatile forklifts.

In 1954 came the first narrow aisle electric reach truck, introduced by Lansing Bagnall. The reach truck allowed operators to stack loads higher and operate in narrower aisles than before. The development changed the design of warehouses leading to increased storage capability.

The increase in lifting heights and capacities lead to the development of safety features, such as load back rests and operator cages, along with ergonomic design, to reduce injuries and to provide optimum operator comfort and productivity.

Today, forklifts have become an indispensable piece of equipment in manufacturing and warehousing operations. Forklifts are more sophisticated with complex electronic and hydraulic systems, and high visibility masts. In fact, “forklifts of today can be equipped with a wide range of electronic equipment to interface with cargo management systems and new RFID technology to increase productivity.”3

So Which Came First?

We know that the needs of World War II logistics operations led to the rise and popularity of both the pallet and the forklift. However, determining which actually came first, the pallet or the forklift, is not as clear.

What do you think? Perhaps Rick LeBlanc’s article What Came First, The Pallet or the Forklift? will help you weigh in on the topic.

For throughout time, materials handling solutions have evolved. With each improvement, our global economy is transformed. As the great Greek mathematician of classical antiquity, Archimedes, exclaimed regarding the lever, ”Give me but one firm spot on which to stand and I will move the earth.”

1 – Cited from author Peter Roger Stuart Moorey in Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Eisenbrauns, 1999), page 32.

2 – Cited from Tom Vanderbilt, The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy (Slate, Aug 14, 2012).

3 – Cited from A Brief History of the Forklift in North America (LiftsRus.com, July 24, 2015).