Change in Direction: The invention of the Four-Way and Eight Way Pallet

Four-Way and Eight-Way Pallet Leave Enduring Contribution to Material Handling Efficiency

“The Hingham depot even created an instructional film on material handling, albeit covertly. Being as creative with bookkeeping as they were with pallet and unit load design, the Hingham staff assigned the cost of the film production to the purchase of supplies.”


ww2-steel-pallet300After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and the expansion of World War ll into the Pacific, military logistics quite literally required a change in direction. Pre-War material handling practices which relied heavily on manual loading and unloading proved to be adequate for the War in Europe. Such was not the case when the face of hostilities turned West.


A two-way pallet shown on the cover of The Palletizer’s January 1945 issue.

Existing techniques sufficed in moving supplies from the port of New York some 3,000 miles across the Atlantic and across the cobblestone surfaces of European ports. In the Pacific, however, the supply chain stretched much further. While the ocean journey from New York to Liverpool was in the range of 55 to 60 days, the trip from San Francisco to Brisbane, Australia lasted four or five months, and to the “theatre of war,” up to an additional 1800 miles beyond Australia.

As the Second World War unfolded, military logisticians were left with the daunting task of expediting materials to support operations underway in the farthest reaches of the Pacific, while reducing very high damage and spoilage rates. Thought leaders of the time recognized the potential for lift trucks and pallets, which while used sparingly in private industry, had not yet received wide acceptance.

One of the challenges of that period, however, was optimizing the loading of ship holds and other confined spaces with the solid stringer two-way pallets of the day, which allowed fork entry only from opposing ends. The material handling breakthrough emerging from this challenge was the invention of the block style four-way entry pallet, which allowed full entry from all four sides, resulting in greater flexibility in pallet placement by forklifts.

The invention of the four-way pallet is generally credited to Norman Cahners, a young U.S. Navy officer stationed at the Navy’s Hingham Massachusetts material handling laboratory, although some accounts of the period also attribute the invention of the four-way pallet to Milton O. Boone, an Oakland California based Army officer with the Quartermaster Corps.

While both men applied for patents in 1943 for their respective patents (Cahners in May and Boone in December), it was Cahners who was to make the most significant impact. As part of a naval material handling trial involving the first use of palletization in the Pacific, he was assigned the task of training material handlers on how to best build and handle palletized loads. The technology was a huge success.

“The palletized cargo arrived in excellent condition with practically no breakage and no pilferage, either en route or during unloading here and distribution ashore,” wrote Marine Lieutenant General Charles F.B. Price of the initial palletization efforts. “The time saved in unloading palletized cargo was enormous.”

The new practices were not without detractors, however. Cahners had to appeal to the patriotism of stevedores and longshoremen in Australia to win their cooperation. They saw the new technology as a threat to their jobs.

Cahners was also instrumental in the publishing of Palletizer Magazine, produced by the Navy and distributed to military contractors. The magazine provided instruction on such topics as pallet building, strapping, forklift safety, storage and stacking, as well as other themes of critical importance to a readers finding themselves at the dawn of the new world of palletized handling, including of course, the four-way entry pallet. Cahners went one step further, pointing out that these pallets were in fact eight-way entry, in that they could also be entered diagonally. The Hingham depot even created an instructional film on material handling, albeit covertly. Being as creative with bookkeeping as they were with pallet and unit load design, the Hingham staff assigned the cost of the film production to the purchase of supplies.

Cahners was allowed to privatize the Palletizer after the War. He changed the name to Modern Materials Handling in 1946, and went on to build a publishing empire. Milton O. Boone retired as a Brigadier General. As for the four-way pallet, appreciation and acceptance of this innovation continue even to this day.

Be sure to check out our second Breakthroughs in Material Handling feature: How the Shipping Container Decisively Transformed the World of Commerce And Achieved Global Standardization Where Pallets Could Not.



● Pallets A North American Perspective, LeBlanc and Richardson, 2003 (Out of print)
● In a niche by himself: The Norman Cahners Story, Steve Maas (forthcoming)
Another Sneak Attack: War Heralded Pallet in Industry
Milton O. Boone four-way pallet patent
Norman Cahners four-way pallet patent