February 11 is National Inventors’ Day and Red Stag Fulfillment would like to salute the past inventions and present technologies that we use every day, making our warehouses run smoothly and helping orders move accurately out the door.
We’ve selected just a handful of the hundreds of products and techniques that make our lives easier. Here are a few of our favorite inventions and a salute to the creative geniuses behind them.
The Big Picture
The underlying principles of what we today call logistics are foundational human elements. They allowed early man to settle down and form farming communities, understand herds to become shepherds, and stockpile food and other necessities to survive lean times or seasons when things wouldn’t grow.
As nations grew larger, the needs of people became more complex — not only in food but also safety, leisure, growth, and trade. Logistics, the movement of goods to specific locations based on need or as an agreed-upon service is how we continue to grow today.
While trade is a common modern focus, legend has it that our terminology comes from “logistikas,” Roman military officers tasked with supplying resources to Rome’s legions and garrisons throughout the empire. Logistikas made it possible for armies to move across great distances.
The practices of moving goods, creating roads, establishing storehouses in new territories, and fulfilling orders from stored goods carry on today, and Red Stag Fulfillment is part of the larger tradition of moving these efforts from supporting the military to supporting a growing U.S. economy.
While eCommerce feels new, the basis for the trend is nearly 160 years old. All the way back in 1861, the first modern mail-order service was established in Newtown, Wales by Sir Pryce Jones.
Jones sold cloth and dry goods and took advantage of the growing national postage service and railway network in Wales to distribute his mail-order catalog and take orders through the post. Within 20 years, he had toured the globe to showcase the method and landed contracts with royalty and nobility in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hanover, Italy, Naples, and Russia, as well as exporting to the U.S.
The business had such a significant impact that you’ve likely used a modern version of the Euklisia Rug he sold, now called a sleeping bag.
As soon as we developed digital communications, commerce started. In 1971, students used the ARPANET network connecting universities to purchase some recreational items, and in 1984 a pensioner in the U.K. used a new system to order groceries via her T.V.
These early efforts all had transactions and payments that occurred in-person, until the website NetMarket, on August 11, 1994, sold a CD for $12.48 plus shipping with the buyer using a credit card on a secure web platform. NetMarket beat Pizza Hut’s online pizza sales by mere weeks.
NetMarket required shoppers to download a specific browser for the Unix operating system in order to create a secure connection and process credit cards.
Like with all things, there is still an ongoing debate about the true start of eCommerce (you could buy train tickets in France and Germany via digital tools in the 1980s) but NetMarket is a good milestone because it appears to be the first completely secure transaction and the use of additional software on the user side gives us a strong parallel to today’s shopping apps and services.
How Red Stag Operates
In Red Stag’s warehouses, we rely on the principles of assembly lines to move goods to and from shelves, pack orders, and get things out the door accurately and on time. Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company often gets credit for the assembly line because it used custom milling machines and drills placed at points along conveyors to speed up the assembly of engine blocks and automobiles.
However, the Venetian Arsenal shipyards seem to have beaten Ford by about 800 years. In the early 1100s, it assembled ships by moving them through canals and having workers and warehouses at points along the canal fit ships with the proper equipment. Roughly 16,000 people worked at the Arsenal and could produce a new galley each day thanks to standardized parts.
Surprisingly, assembly lines weren’t a common production technique for more than a century after the Arsenal began its work.
Warehouses and storehouses are also foundational elements of human society. In cultures where goods were shared, warehouses provided safe and reliable options to provide and protect what a community created. As our relationship with land and ownership changed, so did the use of warehousing.
From a modern logistics standpoint, a horreum is one of the main buildings to consider. These were large warehouses used during ancient Rome for goods from grain and foodstuffs to wine, clothing, building materials, and weaponry. In 123 B.C., the first public horreum was created and it’s been a staple of society ever since.
Essential Tools and Equipment
Barcodes and Scanners
At about 8 in the morning on June 26, 1974, the first item marked with the Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned at the checkout of Troy, Ohio’s Marsh Supermarket.
Inventor Joe Woodland had dreamed up the barcode decades earlier on Miami Beach, turning the dots and dashes of Morse code into thin and thick lines. The first barcode scanner was the size of an office desk. Then, in 1960, Woodland saw a demonstration of a laser and told of its accuracy. This was followed shortly by the Kroger Company grocery chain publishing a booklet dreaming of an optical scanner to read prices and total sales. Radio Corporation of America (RCA) wanted to help the chain achieve just that and found Woodland’s barcode patent.
Revisions, improvements, and partnering with manufacturers took many more years but eventually led to the UPC barcode and custom SKUs that we have today. Thankfully, barcode scanners have gotten much smaller and we’re now able to use them to ensure 99.999% accuracy for the orders we ship out the door.
Most great ideas seem to happen in the shower these days, and that’s somewhat true for one of the most-used products in any warehouse. Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 when engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes sealed two shower curtains together. The effect created an assortment of bubbles trapped in the new sheet.
While it failed to catch on as wallpaper or insulation for greenhouses, the Sealed Air Corporation eventually realized it could cushion products and became a broad protection tool. IBM was the first known brand to use bubble wrap for packaging, protecting the IBM 1401 computer when it was shipped to customers.
We also have to thank Alfred Fielding’s son Howard for one of the greatest joys in life: popping those bubbles.
The first forklifts were human-powered machines that could lift heavier loads, but they still put a lot of pressure on the user. In 1906, the Pennsylvania Railroad took a leap forward with a battery-powered platform truck that moved luggage around train stations. The outbreak of WWI led to the creation of more powered tractors and lift tractors, partly to help build more complex machinery and partly to address the labor shortage as people went off to war.
Next, Yale came out with an electric truck featuring a raising fork in 1925.
If you traveled back to the 1930s, you would likely recognize many trucks as the parents of forklifts thanks to the use of hydraulic and electric power forklifts working with standardized pallets.
Forklifts and work trucks exploded in use at the time and many companies built custom units for warehouses. Lansing Bagnall standardized these and has what is claimed to be the first electric reach truck specifically for narrow aisles.
Workbenches are customized tables and presumed to have been around since at least the 7th century BCE, made of wood, stones, and metals like bronze. The Egyptians have some of the first recorded workbenches with rocks and notches used for bracing their work. The workbench we’re all a little more familiar with came years later and one of the first depictions of a craftsperson at a workbench comes from around 50 C.E.
Since then, we’ve seen new workbenches arrive regularly with a variety of innovations. Jinhua Wis Tool holds a patent for a workbench that can take multiple forms and also flatpacks on wheels for easy shipping and moving. The adjustable sitting/standing desk now common on warehouse floors and in many offices was patented in 2014 by John Ringlein. Amazon even has a 2011 patent for order fulfillment systems that guide the right products to packaging stations when you start automating picking.
For everything, there is a season — and a patent.
Another warehouse staple is the pallet jack or pallet truck, used to lift and move pallets. Simply slide it under and pump the handle to move heavy objects and stacked pallets, allowing everyone to move faster and keep customers happy.
The underlying tech has been around for a while, but the combination we’re familiar with likely came about around 1918. The pallet jack was advertised as a new type of hand truck that could speed up labor and keep businesses moving as they faced a labor shortage.
The review in Popular Science from 1918 is a wild ride and we’re thankful that the pallet jack caught on while sleeping in a bed attached to the outside of your windows didn’t.
One thing our offices (and likely yours, too) can’t live without is our Post-it Notes. While we use the rainbow to help plan our tasks, take notes, and stay organized, these little miracle workers originally only came in canary yellow.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Spencer Silver at 3M created a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. Art Fry added the adhesive to a bookmark and 3M started selling “Press ‘n Peel” bookmarks in the 70s. It then switched to smaller packets of notes and the rest is history.
Like all good inventions, there’s also drama over who takes credit for inventing the notes.
For anyone who’s worked in a warehouse, the semi can become a great friend. It brings inbound inventory when you need it, can help you move freight to customers, and you can save significantly by using them to your advantage.
We all owe thanks to Alexander Winton who, in 1898, invented the semi. This Cleveland “horseless carriage” maker created the semi to deliver the cars he manufactured to their buyers — another core eCommerce and logistics connection! Winton began selling them in 1899 and there were roughly 700 on the roads within five years. By 1914, this is said to have grown to 25,000 in use. This was the same year we see one of the first specialized trucks, with a semi designed specifically to carry boats.
Semis kept rocketing up in usage thanks to their durability, load capabilities, and road improvements through efforts like the 1917 Federal Highway Act. Within 25 years, more than 415,000 semis were moving across the U.S. alone.
Looking to what’s next
Red Stag Fulfillment’s success relies on these and many more creative innovations. We’re always looking to try something brand new, refine a process, or fire up the latest technology like a custom box cutter. It’s just one way we stay excited about logistics and what improvements we can bring to our customers.