A Century of Lift Trucks

The story of Elwell-Parker and its contribution to materials handling is woven into the very fabric of modern commerce.

Elwell-Parker executives huddle around a model of the design of their latest die-handling lift truck.

The story of Elwell-Parker and its contribution to materials handling is woven into the very fabric of modern commerce. Incorporated on July 6th, 1893 in Cleveland during the earliest days of the automotive industry, Elwell-Parker helped usher in a new era of global manufacturing and trade. From the invention of the first powered truck in 1906, to the creation of the modern pallet in 1930, to the designs of some of the earliest automated guided vehicles, the Elwell-Parker Electric Company of America has spent over a century delivering innovations that have transformed how the world does business.

Elwell-Parker in the 19th Century

For most of its 120 year heritage, the Elwell-Parker brand has been synonymous with American ingenuity, but its legacy begins even earlier in the industrial town of Wolverhampton, England. It was there in 1882 that Paul Bedford Elwell partnered with a brilliant engineer named Thomas Parker to found the Wolverhampton Electric Light, Power, Storage and Engineering Company.

It began as little more than a two-person department attached to Elwell's existing business, a facility that produced horseshoes, nails, and other iron goods. In spite of its humble origins and small staff, the new company was soon at the forefront of an electrical revolution. By 1883 it had developed and built one of the world's first commercial dynamos for the Manchester Edison Company. Almost immediately afterward it designed and installed the first underground electric lights in England, and likely the world.

In 1884 Paul Bedford Elwell closed his horseshoe and iron business to focus solely on electrical projects, and the partners shortened the name of their company from eight words to three: Elwell-Parker Limited. Within a few years, Elwell-Parker was electrifying railways, engineering new motors, and designing industrial batteries -- developments that would go on to change the world forever.

Thomas Parker: Portrait of a Pioneer

Much of Elwell-Parker's early success can be attributed to the genius of Parker, who was born in 1843. The son of an iron molder, his first experience with industry came early in life when he left school at age nine to work alongside his father at the Coalbrookdale Foundry in Wolverhampton.

As a young man he became interested in electricity after attending the Second International Exhibition in London in 1862, where he encountered devices such as the telegraph and the wet battery for the first time. Four years later at age 23, Parker began studying under the famous chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe, noted for early experiments in flash photography and for isolating the element vanadium.

Over the next two decades Parker became an executive engineer at the foundry where he had worked for most of his life, but he never lost his passion for electricity. By the time of his partnership with Elwell, he had discovered the use of nitric acid in batteries and was hosting regular demonstrations of electric lighting using equipment he had designed and built himself.

More Firsts as Elwell-Parker Matures

In 1887 Elwell-Parker again made history by supplying the batteries for the Nautilus, the world's first electric-powered submarine. Paul Bedford Elwell, however, apparently left the company that same year and moved to Paris, where he began working on the city's new rail system. Elwell also worked as a consultant to several railroad companies throughout the 1890s, including in the US. Always an energetic and possibly overly-enthusiastic businessman, Elwell may have been in debt from bad outside investments at the end of his accomplished career.

But even without Elwell, the company continued to flourish. As the remaining original partner, Thomas Parker continued to develop increasingly advanced products while merging Elwell-Parker with several other companies to become the Electric Construction Corporation in 1889 and later the Electric Construction Company in 1893. Although Parker himself left the company in 1893 to work on electrifying London's subway system for the Metropolitan Railway, his reputation for using intelligent engineering to solve the challenges of industry carried his ideas across the Atlantic ocean to the shores of Lake Erie, where a new company bearing his name would soon begin making history on its own.

The Birth of the Elwell-Parker Electric Company of America

While Thomas Parker was in England pioneering advances in electricity, the ports of the American Great Lakes were undergoing their own revolution. In 1879 Alexander Brown, a Cleveland engineer, invented new conveyor and hoisting systems that could automate much of the handling of bulk materials in port, a task that previously had relied primarily on men with wheelbarrows.

Brown's inventions not only dramatically cut labor costs and increased portside efficiency, they also changed how cargo ships were designed -- transforming them from traditional 19th century watercraft to the long, flat super-carriers that ply the Great Lakes to this day. Where a ship once might have brought 300 tons of iron ore to port, taking days to unload its cargo, new ships with over 27 times that capacity were soon in use that could be unloaded in a fraction of the time.

By 1890 Brown was actively seeking electric motors for his cranes and conveyor systems, which at the time were powered by steam. He was drawn to the products being made by Elwell-Parker and approached the Electric Construction Company, then Elwell-Parker's parent, about forming an American branch. In exchange for giving the British firm a 7 1/2 percent stake in the new company, Brown received all of Elwell-Parker's original drawings and patent rights. In the summer of 1893 the Elwell-Parker Electric Company of America officially opened on St. Clair Street in Cleveland.

The Great Panic of 1893 Threatens Elwell-Parker's Future

From almost the moment the new company was incorporated, however, its future was uncertain. The Great Panic of 1893, which saw global trade drop to a 50-year low, had begun barely two months earlier and resulted in the worst economic depression in history up to that point. Business was so bad that Elwell-Parker did not produce or sell a single motor during its entire first year in operation. By 1896, with the depression still at its peak, the fledgling company was struggling to find customers and to cover its $20,000 of debt ($540,000 adjusted for inflation).

In 1895, while the directors were pondering the fate of the company, Brown Hoist -- Elwell-Parker's only lifeline -- transferred a 30-year-old draftsman named Morris S. Towson to the 23-person shop on St. Clair Street. Until that time Elwell-Parker had almost exclusively built motors for hoisting equipment; Towson's task was to diversify the company's product lines and to look for ways to improve business.

Under Towson's direction, Elwell-Parker began engineering steam-powered electric generators for ships, multiple voltage sets, generator control systems, torpedo motors, and an ever-widening assortment of products. The strategy paid off, and as the 19th century wound to a close, Elwell-Parker moved out of the offices it had been renting from Brown Hoist to a much larger location across the street. There it became involved in the industry that would come to shape it, and much of America, for the century ahead.

Entering the Automobile Industry

Electric cars have only recently returned to prominence, but at the turn of the 20th century they were the best-selling automobiles being produced. They were quieter, cleaner, easier to drive, and more efficient than gasoline vehicles -- traits that account for some of their rising popularity today. And though the first electric vehicle was believed to have been built nearly 70 years earlier, it was in Detroit and Cleveland in the late 19th century where the industry truly began -- and where Elwell-Parker was ready to take part.

In 1899 Elwell-Parker designed its first motor for the Baker Motor Vehicle Company, one of the early producers of electric cars. Within the year Elwell-Parker was also building the motors for many of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the region, and by 1903 it was producing motors and controllers for both passenger and commercial vehicles.

The Detroit Electric Car Company Buys Elwell-Parker

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, demand for Elwell-Parker motors and automobile systems was so great that the company literally could not produce them fast enough. This prompted W.C. Anderson, owner of the Detroit Electric Car Company, to purchase a controlling interest in Elwell-Parker in 1909 to guarantee access to an adequate supply of parts. M.S. Towson, who would soon become Elwell-Parker's vice-president, was instructed to purchase the Electric Construction Company's 7 1/2 percent stake and formally end Elwell-Parker's connection to Britain.

As gasoline-powered automobiles improved and began offering greater ranges at faster speeds, interest in the electric car declined until electric passenger vehicles disappeared almost entirely from American roads. Many manufacturers were forced to close or merge with their former competitors, but Detroit Electric continued to produce cars on a small scale until it declared bankruptcy in 1929 and was shuttered for good a decade later. This was the case when Elwell-Parker was spun-off in 1920 to become an independent company with Towson as president, a position he would keep until his death in 1942.

Inventing the First Powered Material Handling Truck

The waning interest that plagued the electric passenger car industry was not as severe in the commercial realm, where factories, docks, and utility companies still had a need for specialized electric vehicles. And it was in industrial and commercial applications that Elwell-Parker excelled, using its emphasis on quality-through-engineering to create some of the most reliable electric automobiles in the world. This included a six-ton street truck built in 1903 that at the time was the largest battery-powered vehicle ever produced, a distinction it held until 1942. The truck was in use for nearly 20 years; Elwell-Parker had made both its motor and chassis.

It was in 1906, however, that Elwell-Parker began building the machines that would come to dominate modern materials handling. Much as Alexander Brown's new hoists altered the design of cargo ships, the new trucks and concepts Elwell-Parker introduced over the next half-century reshaped industry at its core, influencing the location and layouts of plants, assembly lines, warehouses, train terminals, ports, and even whole towns.

The "Electric Porter" Revolutionizes Travel

It started with a problem at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Jersey City Terminal. Baggage routinely piled up at the station during peak travel times, leading to bottlenecks that created system-wide delays. Tracy Buckwalter, superintendent of motive power for the railroad, came to Towson and Elwell-Parker to see if it was possible to make processing luggage more efficient.

Elwell-Parker's solution was a battery-powered baggage transport known as the "electric porter." The first model was essentially an ordinary hand truck with batteries and an Elwell-Parker motor installed below the deck. It was easy to start and move but difficult to stop, and soon other features such as an operator platform and a mechanical brake were added. Efficiency at the Jersey City Terminal quadrupled overnight.

Forging the Materials Handling Industry

The electric porter was a major success and was soon being exported to railroads and ports (where they were called electric stevedores) around the world. By 1910 Towson had noticed that some industrial shops had begun using Elwell-Parker's baggage trucks for interplant haulage, and he realized the potential market for powered material handling vehicles. Towson's biggest obstacle in the United States, however, was a human one. Thanks to a rapidly growing immigrant population, labor was cheap and abundant, giving many American factories little incentive to invest in expensive new machines or technology.

Towson's response to the challenge became the hallmark characteristic of Elwell-Parker's business model: He and his team of engineers set out to find and then solve the most vexing problems in industrial plant logistics. Working directly with customers, Elwell-Parker began custom designing vehicles for specific jobs or to fit existing plant layouts. This unique approach led to many advances such as four-wheel steering being discovered and integrated in a short span of time.

Inventing the Lift Truck

The most significant of these advances came in 1914 with the creation of a new type of truck that could run a projecting platform beneath a skid or frame, raise it a few inches off the floor, and then lower it at a different spot. This was the very first lift truck, and though the original lifting mechanism was driven by a hand crank, Elwell-Parker produced a powered version the following year.

Elwell-Parker's first customer for the new vehicles was the Schneider Company of Paris, which used them to handle 75mm French artillery shells. Additional orders followed, and within a year Elwell-Parker was producing new models with much greater lifting capacities, higher-reaching platforms, or with small cranes attached. During World War I Elwell-Parker even briefly took over the facilities of its parent company in Detroit to accelerate production.

The 1914 low-lift truck and its powered 1915 follow-up were the direct predecessors of the forklift and were the first vehicles that went beyond simply transporting materials to actively handling them. These "self-loaders" marked the beginning of the modern materials handling industry.

Dominating an Industry

World War I is sometimes called the first modern war, and it was certainly the first test of modern materials handling. By 1917 the lift truck's value to logistics had been proven, and the industry that Elwell-Parker had helped create saw a rash of new competitors, several of them also located in Cleveland.

Many of these competitors built lift trucks based largely on Towson's own design, in particular the position of the truck's wheels outside the frame. While the design was protected by a patent in Towson's name, Elwell-Parker chose not to zealously guard it, instead opting for what it considered to be "mutually beneficial competition." Towson believed that a large number of competitors would help convince all of industry of the lift truck's value, essentially serving as free marketing that would enable Elwell-Parker to expand its customer base.

This is precisely what happened, and by 1918 lift trucks were beginning to influence the design of industrial factories. Long, flat facilities with clean, smooth floors were now being favored over traditional vertical designs, allowing for improvements in workflow that could be assisted by lift trucks and other material handling vehicles. Improvements to infrastructure and a need for increased horizontal space, furthermore, helped spur the building of factories outside of major cities, contributing to the rise of new suburbs and in some cases entire new towns.

Developing the Forklift

Competition and growing demand helped drive innovation, just as Towson had hoped, and by the end of the war Elwell-Parker was producing electric trucks, gasoline-powered trucks, and even gas- electric hybrids. Then, in 1919, Elwell-Parker added a "fork lifting device" to some of its trucks that enabled loads of greater than one ton to be carried beyond the front axle. Lifting capacities were also increased, and by 1920 industrial trucks that used hydraulic power to handle loads were in production. Finally, in 1923, Yale introduced an electric truck with forks that could be raised or lowered on an elevated mast. The first modern forklifts were now appearing in factories around the world.

Elwell-Parker continued to develop new trucks at a feverish pace, increasing capacities until the capabilities of many Elwell-Parker forklifts began rivaling traditional hoisting equipment like cranes. By 1925 Elwell-Parker had produced a "super-super" lift truck that could handle loads weighing upwards of 10 tons, a direct forerunner to the high-capacity lift trucks in use today. Other innovations followed, including some of the first rugged terrain forklifts, the first narrow-aisle lift trucks, and the first die handlers for the automobile industry.

Inventing the Modern Pallet

Ironically, in spite of the many breakthroughs pioneered by the company, one of Elwell-Parker's greatest contributions to materials handling is also one of the simplest: the pallet. Skids and racks of wood and metal had been used to pile and store material for generations, but the arrival of the lift truck and the forklift opened up new possibilities that had never been considered.

This was the case in the late 1920s when a can company approached Elwell-Parker to work out an efficient means of handling large stacks of lids. The skids being used at the time lacked the proper weight distribution and took up too much space, but in 1930 a solution inspired by ancient brick-making was found. The pallet was based on platters that makers of bricks and clay had traditionally used to dry their wares. An open box-like construction on the bottom of the platter helped air circulate beneath the hardening brick; the pallet used a similar design with open spaces at either side where forks could be inserted.

The influence of the pallet on materials handling cannot be overstated. The pallet was significantly lighter, stronger, and much cheaper to mass produce than its predecessors, greatly reducing costs. It also enabled the even weight distribution of loads and standardized their size, which now permitted items to be trayed up and stacked. New forklifts were soon developed that could tilt loads backwards for added stability, while new telescoping masts dramatically extended lift heights, further increasing available storage space and reducing costs.

Pallets also changed how items were packaged, and starting in the 1930s product cases were redesigned for greater strength and economy, turning pallets into large cubical units for convenient storage. Keeping pallets together as long as possible, sometimes even in the market or store, became a standard practice -- one that is still widely followed today.

Advancing Materials Handling in the Face of Depression and War

When the Great Depression of 1930 saw a 50 percent drop in worldwide trade, Elwell-Parker responded by significantly increasing its engineering staff, just as it had during the depressions of 1893 and 1921. The company believed that an eventual economic recovery would lead to tighter competition as well as new opportunities, and it intended to be ready to meet the unique needs of future customers. Even as unemployment skyrocketed, Elwell-Parker hired new engineers and sent them to factories and shipping terminals around the world to catalog challenges in materials handling and, more importantly, to develop solutions.

By the time economic conditions began to improve, Elwell-Parker was producing a range of custom vehicles including a 29-inch narrow aisle truck, high-reach trucks with double-telescoping masts, aerial man-lifts and workstations, process trucks that could turn wrenches or operate machinery, super high-capacity die handlers, coil and roll handlers, and even mobile cafeterias.

When the Great Depression gave way to World War II, Elwell-Parker scaled back the number of product lines and increased production on lines of trucks designed for the U.S. military. During the war Elwell-Parker vehicles were being used at "arsenals, depots, shipyards, terminals, docks and bases here and abroad.

Forging Ahead During the Post-War Years

Early in the war Elwell-Parker correctly predicted that technological advances made during wartime would become publically available at its conclusion, and believed that industry would resume on a track of what it called "majestic evolution." For its own part in that postwar evolution, Elwell-Parker introduced the use of solid state control systems as well as many of the ergonomic and safety features found in forklifts today. Elwell-Parker also simplified and standardized many of its components, even as it returned to its practice of creating narrowly specialized vehicles.

As the century wore on, Elwell-Parker became a leader in high-capacity, customized, and technologically advanced equipment, pioneering the design of automated guided vehicles and producing units with capacities in excess of 100,000 pounds. Elwell-Parker also became a top supplier to companies in the primary metals, heavy manufacturing, and automotive industries -- many of whom continue to use Elwell-Parker vehicles to this day.

Elwell-Parker through the End of the 20th Century

In keeping with the philosophy that had guided the company since 1893, Elwell-Parker became known for assisting local dealers with evaluating customer sites to address operational, safety, and technical issues before designing a vehicle to fit that situation. And true to its roots as a producer of motors, Elwell-Parker motors and vehicle components were hand-crafted to ensure maximum quality and reliability. The company also continued to lead in areas such as environmental conservation, focusing on electric and pollution-free vehicles decades ahead of increased government regulations.

Although it had enjoyed nearly 100 years of excellence and industry dominance, Elwell-Parker suffered from the decline of the automotive and steel industries during the 1980s. The company was also beset by an influx of cheaply made imported trucks that further depressed sales. In 2000 Elwell-Parker was sold to Hoist Liftruck in Bedford, Illinois, and the St. Clair Street headquarters, its home for nearly a century, was closed forever.

Today's Elwell-Parker

Find out more about how the company is reinventing itself for the 21st century.


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"Elwell Parker Electric Co." The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. 8 Dec. 2002. Case Western Reserve University ech.case.edu/ech-cgi/article.pl?id=EPEC

"The Elwell-Parker Electric Co. of America." The Electrical Engineer 19 (1895): 163

Love, John W. Lengthened Shadows: Recounting the Development of Industrial Load Transportation at the Inception of the Electric Industrial Truck. Cleveland: Elwell-Parker, 1943

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All quoted material taken from Lengthened Shadows by John W. Love, 1943.