Man has always looked for easier ways of accomplishing difficult strenuous tasks and one can easily think back to the Stone Age man and the invention of the lever. It was Archimedes who finally recognised the importance of the lever and his famous statement "Give me but one firm spot on which to stand and I will move the earth" is well known. I doubt that he was thinking of modern day fork lifts when he said that and indeed it was to be many years before they were developed in the United States.
In the 1800's basic manually powered sack trucks were developed and are still in use to this day! As goods became more diverse other types of hand operated equipment were developed: platform trucks and four wheeled trailers and the like. Powered versions did not appear until the beginning of the 20th century and were driven by electric motors powered by traction batteries. Safety was definitely not a consideration in those days but they did assist in getting the job done and later types were made with a platform which could be electrically raised and lowered.
It was the first world war that made the fork lift truck popular mainly due to the shortage of labour. After the war the truck designers decided that putting loads on top of each other would be rather a good idea and so a high lift version of the platform truck was produced.
Clark are credited with producing the forerunner of the seated counterbalanced truck in 1917 but it was my old company Yale, that, in 1925, produced the first electric truck that had raising forks and an elevating mast. No tilt was fitted to the machine and the lift was by ratchet and pinion as hydraulic systems had not been incorporated into trucks at that stage. I actually drove one of these machines dating from 1926 whilst working for Yale in the 1970s. This machine, (pictured right), was brought over from the states in 1938 for use by the armed forces. It was a nightmare to drive and the operator stood upright on two large, spring loaded wooden blocks which were used to change direction. It was a dirty brown colour when I drove it and we later kept it in the foyer of the office block. It is now in the FLTA heritage centre which is based at the Midlands Railway Centre and it is still in perfect working order! This is definitely the oldest truck in the UK and one of the oldest in the world, unless you know better?........
At first industry was slow to take up the idea of the lift truck but the advent of the second world war soon made them indispensable for loading vast quantities of war goods onto wagons and ships etc. The fork lift tuck had finally arrived! After the war British industry started importing trucks from the USA and they were used mainly for outside applications but then in 1946 the first truly British company, Coventry Climax, produced the first British fork lift truck and the rest as they say, is history. (A 1949 Coventry Climax truck is shown here).
One company who had a very significant impact on the UK truck industry was Lansing Bagnall, (now Linde), who took the counterbalanced truck redesigned it and produced the worlds' first reach truck for use in narrow aisle applications.
Trucks nowadays are more sophisticated with complex electronic and hydraulic systems, high visibility masts and with comfort and safety for the operator paramount.