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A Brief History of the Forklift in North America



Forklift trucks have been around for nearly 90 years serving the needs of American industry.  Clark is generally credited with introducing the first fork lift truck in approximately 1917 and offered these machines for sale in 1918.  While these first forklifts looked more like tractors with a platform attachment, they quickly found a place moving equipment in the factory.  Over the early 1920’s, the design of the forklift evolved from a tractor with an attachment to a dedicated machine with a vertical lifting mast such as we know today.  In the early 20’s several manufacturers arrived on the scene.  Yale and Baker both entered the market with electric battery powered machines. In the 1930’s Hyster Company moved from a manufacturer of logging equipment into the world of forklift trucks. 

World War II brought a number of additional manufacturers into the forklift business to support the growing need to support the war effort.  The US Armed forces needed an increasingly more mobile method of moving materials to the front lines and the forklift fit the bill.  Along with emerging use for wooden pallets, cargo was rapidly transported from US factories to foreign ports using the forklift.

After the war, manufacturing was changing and the needs for more efficient warehousing led to the introduction of the Narrow Aisle Reach truck by Raymond Corporation in the early 1950’s.  Other manufacturers, such as Lewis-Sheppard and Crown Equipment, realized the potential of these machines and entered the marketplace with lines of battery powered warehouse and pallet trucks.

Forklifts continued to evolve through the 1960’s as new technology became available.  The late 1960’s saw the first sophisticated electronic controls for electric forklifts and the 1970’s saw further refinements in motor and engine controls.  The 1970’s also started the consolidation of several lift truck manufacturers in the marketplace.  Lewis-Sheppard was acquired by Hyster and Baker was acquired by Linde of Germany.

The 1980’s brought many changes to the market place and saw the introduction of foreign manufactured forklifts in the US marketplace.  Toyota and Nissan were becoming major competitors to the traditional US companies along with Daewoo of Korea.  The emergence of automated and wire guidance systems trucks was taking the lift truck in new directions while consolidation within the industry continued with the merger of Hyster Company and Yale Materials Handling in 1989.

Through the 1990’s and on to today, the lift truck has continued to evolve.  Consolidation continued in the industry as Toyota acquired Raymond Corporation along with BT Prime Mover and Clark has been acquired by An Hat. 

Lift trucks have been developed which allowed the tremendous increase in use of containers to move the cargo of the world and lift trucks are no longer simply pieces of bulky industrial equipment.  Today’s forklift is ergonomically designed to provide optimum operator comfort and productivity with styling to match.  Today’s trucks can be equipped with a wide range of electronic equipment to interface with cargo management systems and new RFID technology to increase productivity – a long way from the platform lift tractors of the last century.




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