Shipping Pallets: Who invented the pallet?

The invention of the pallet and the lift truck went hand in hand

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You’ve probably never looked at a stack of pallets behind a grocery store or Walmart and wondered: Who invented that? Neither have I, and hey, I grew up in the pallet industry.

It hardly ranks up there with the other great mysteries of life like Is there a God? or Who killed Roger Rabbit?

But as I learned yesterday in a conversation with Steve Raymond, the pallet does have a father. In fact, it has two of them: George Raymond, Sr. and Bill House. The pair were granted a patent for pallets on November 7, 1939 on behalf of the Lyon Iron Works, the predecessor to The Raymond Corporation

According to Raymond, who is George senior’s grandson and a Raymond dealer in his own right, the complete history of the invention of the pallet has been lost over time. What he does know is that his grandfather and House were also issued a patent for the modern day lift truck on the same day.

That invention was an improvement on a skid handler that was manufactured in the early part of the last century. Back then, Raymond says, the Lyon Iron Works was an iron foundry that made castings, farm tools and implements. By 1922, when George senior took over the company, that market was dying. The company began a shift from castings and farm tools to products that you would identify as material handling equipment. “The closest product we made to a lift truck was a skid handler,” Raymond says. “The skid had runners on it like a sled and the handler picked it up without forks.”

How did the skid handler evolve into a lift truck with forks and pallets? “I’m guessing there was a customer involved and it may have been American Can, which was a very important customer to us back then, or another customer in the brewery industry,” Raymond says. “Back then, my grandfather grew the business by developing solutions for specific companies. But, I don’t know what problem they were trying to solve that they came up with the pallet.”

Raymond adds that family and company lore have it that George senior and House developed the truck first and then put the pallet together. “It was a double face pallet, with bottom boards to give it strength,” Raymond says. “The forks had wheels on them to fit through the openings and lifted the pallet about five or six inches off the floor. It worked very much like a hand pallet truck you’d see today, except it was a lot more stout.”

What happened next? Raymond isn’t quite certain. The supposition around Raymond is that George senior and House saw the pallet as the thing that would drive the adoption of the lift truck. As such, they never tried to make money off of the pallet patent. “We have pictures of some products they made back then that had hardwood decks, but I don’t think they ever made and sold pallets,” Raymond says. He has also consulted with an elderly aunt – George senior’s daughter – who was involved in the business and reports that the family never made any money from royalties on the pallet. 

Given the billions of pallets that have been sold since 1939, that may have been a lot of cash. On the other hand, it made possible the growth of a multi-billion dollar industry that competes on a global basis. And, even if most people don’t give the pallet a second thought, there’s a certain amount of family pride in its invention. “Whenever we see a stack of pallets around a grocery store, my children think it’s cool that their great-grandfather invented that,” Raymond says.

Read more from the Pallet Report.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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