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Once upon a time, warehouses were places that relied entirely on strong men, people who could literally manhandle heavy goods into and out of storage, usually with little more help than rudimentary hoists and trolleys.
Only a century ago, if you looked inside the storage facilities of Bristol’s great industries, you’d see raw muscle power at work, stacking by hand the ingredients for chocolate or soap, the raw materials for cigarettes or cotton goods, the essential materials for Bristol’s burgeoning shipbuilding trade.
These days, forklift trucks do the heavy lifting; they’ve become so essential that some lorries carry their own forklift, hanging off the back of the trailer like a haulier’s badge of strength.
But it took two world wars and some American ingenuity before these now ubiquitous machines began to make an impact on British industry.
In 1847, on Bristol’s Union Street, the Fry’s chocolate factory created a moulded chocolate bar that could be mass-produced.
Fry’s was already Britain’s largest commercial producer of chocolate and was no stranger to technology – for example, it had patented a way of grinding cocoa beans with a Watt steam engine.
But, in Fry’s warehouses, just like everywhere else, muscle power and hand carts were usually as high-tech as it got. If you wanted to move stock or ingredients, you relied on men and horses.
Change was coming, but not in Britain – and not until the 20th century.
The Industrial Revolution had brought many changes to production and transport, but you would be hard-pressed to notice any difference in Bristol’s warehouses. Manually-operated hoists were popular, but they were hardly mobile.
In fact, the beginnings of real change didn’t take place until decades after Fry’s chocolate bar invention – and the changes were in the United States.
The first patent for a mobile lifting device was filed in 1867, in the US. It was really nothing more than a wooden cart with a hoist, but it could lift heavy items and transport them a short distance.
Twenty years later, the two-wheel hand cart appeared in America, allowing both horizontal and vertical movement of loads. Its iron axle and simple construction may sound incredibly out-dated, even for the 19th century, but its rudimentary DNA survives in every modern-day forklift.
After almost another 20 years, the next big step in the evolution of the forklift took place in a town called Altoona, in Pennsylvania.
In 1906, a worker at the Pennsylvania Railroad project introduced battery power to a four-wheeled baggage cart. The age of the platform truck had arrived.
Three years later, the first all-steel lift truck was created, utilising battery power to elevate and transport heavy items.
This machine’s potential was spotted, and these trucks started to appear in US paper factories. They didn’t yet have the now-familiar lifting fork – understandably, the lifting platform was still sheet metal – but they were streets ahead of anything being used elsewhere, not least of all in those Bristol warehouses.
By now, the world was on the brink of war. Within months, millions of men would be involved in the fight, and that would have a pivotal effect on the development of the forklift.
In Bristol, as everywhere, soldiers were being signed up in their tens of thousands. At its Horfield Barracks HQ, the Gloucestershire Regiment was about to have 18 battalions added to its establishment and, over the course of the war, would see 8,100 of its men killed.
Factories that relied on muscle to move goods suddenly had to adapt to operating without the help of fit young men. Lift trucks were becoming a necessity, rather than a luxury.
In the UK in 1915, a steel powered lift truck was built by Ipswich-based Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries that allowed loads to be moved both horizontally and vertically.
The same year in the US also marked the arrival of a truck that was powered vertically as well as horizontally.
Called the Tructractor, it had been built by axle-manufacturer the Clark Company to move materials at its factory.
Other companies asked Clark Co to build them Tructractors too, and the platform was promptly developed. Within a couple of years, it had become a counterbalanced machine with seated operation – the forklift as we know it now was starting to take shape.
The Great War was now history but the lifting trucks had proved their worth, and their development accelerated.
In 1919, high-lift versions were introduced that could raise their platforms several feet. Forks and rams appeared and, in 1920, the first hydraulic lift made its debut.
Shorter wheelbases were trialled, improving manoeuvrability without adversely affecting stability.
Then, in 1923, the first ‘real’ forklift was unveiled. Yale’s machine could lift beyond the truck’s height, thanks to an elevated mast, and it was designed to lift loads off the ground.
Over the coming years, other developments appeared that we take for granted now – a tilting mast, independent of the lifting gear; centre-control, with the battery placed at the back for maximum counterweight effect; welding rather than riveting to improve strength and cut down on weight.
Forklifts were faced with a plethora of things to lift – single-faced pallets, ironbound ‘skids’, loads of different sizes.
In 1930, a US can manufacturer carried out its own research into pallets, and showed that the two-faced pallet was not just less expensive to build than a traditional skid, it was also stronger than the competition.
Suddenly, manufacturers, distributors and storage facilities had a standardised way of moving heavy loads, and stacking them neatly.
The lifting trucks’ forks made getting goods off the floor a cinch, and the machines began to surge in popularity.
By the time of the Second World War, forklifts had proved their worth – in the US at least.
America increasingly used the machines to load ships and wagons, and about 25,000 forklifts were used in the war effort in 1941 alone.
Forklifts had to be efficient and, as the war progressed, they became able to run for a full day on a single charge. Forklifts, it turns out, were way ahead of the game when it came to electric vehicles.
Britain finally started to properly appreciate forklifts around this time and imported the machines from the US.
Of course, chocolate and cotton were not the most important industries in Bristol by now. Bristol Harbour and the Bristol Aeroplane Company were among the reasons that led to Bristol being a top-five target for Luftwaffe bombers, costing 1,299 lives in the city.
You wouldn’t have seen any British forklifts around the harbour or in warehouses that survived the devastating bombing raids during the war though – the first UK-manufactured forklifts were produced by Coventry Climax in 1946.
Post-war rebuilding was underway everywhere by the late 1940s. Bristol lost 82,000 houses to German bombs, and they had to be replaced. On a grander scale, the handsome Council House on College Green – started before the outbreak of war – was finally finished in 1953.
Forklifts performed their duties well enough during the war but they were big brutes, and cumbersome to manoeuvre around the tight confines of a warehouse.
New warehouses were being built, and they were getting taller and broader. Forklifts would have to adapt.
And adapt they did. Narrower models were able to operate in small aisles; the challenge of high shelves saw some forklifts able to lift goods 50 feet off the ground; power grew, even as the size of trucks shrank, allowing heavier and heavier loads to be handled.
And, of course, manoeuvrability was further improved, making it easier to zip around narrow spaces.
We may think of Health and Safety as being a fairly recent focus but, by the mid-1950s, forklift safety was already a concern.
As the machines lifted their loads ever higher, it became apparent that a cage to protect the driver from falling materials was not just a good idea, it was essential.
Load backrests, to keep pallets in place in transit, were also introduced. In the years since, safety has become more and more important.
Modern forklifts have excellent visibility, electronic safety devices and wireless data transmission to help manage and analyse performance.
And, of course, electric motors are considered more environmentally friendly than most alternatives. For real green credentials, forklifts with hydrogen fuel cells top the list.
And what does the future hold for forklifts?
More automation, certainly. ‘Dark warehouses’ already exist where the stock picking process is completely automated.
These buildings can be 100,000 square metres in size and automation promises to deliver a quicker, more efficient and safer stock management system.
Powertrains will also keep getting more efficient, as engine manufacturers compete to deliver ever-greener solutions. Lithium-ion batteries will become the norm, and induction technology will make wireless charging increasingly common.
Allied to this will be even more safety elements – smart charging systems that anticipate demand, communicate with trucks and watch for hazards such as humans as well. As a bonus, the batteries in trucks will be able to feed power back into the National Grid when appropriate, generating revenue and then recharging when mains electricity is less expensive.
And, of course, performance will keep getting better and better. There are already forklifts out there that can lift more than 70 tonnes, and machines that can raise boats 75 feet in the air.
It’s debatable whether a forklift will ever travel faster than the 75mph truck clocked in New Zealand back in 2009.
And an automated machine will have to go some to beat the official Guinness World Record for coupe glass stacking with a forklift: Chinese driver An Liqiang managed to stack 16 of the glasses in an hour in 2016.
Do any Bristol wine bar owners fancy having a go at that record..?