Tramps of San Francisco

In search of San Francisco's forgotten histories

The Expeditious Conveyance of Intelligence to and from San Francisco

The Internet is running out of room. But, no worries – you’ve already been upgraded. Did you even know?

I came across this surprising news on one of my daily forays to Google. Like the universe we live in, I thought the Internet was infinite. According to Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google and a founding father of the Internet, it’s not.

As if storming an ethereal beachhead, the IPv6 upgrade launched this week on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2012. The current Internet Protocol (IP) system, version 4, can only accommodate around 4 billion IP addresses. But version 6 can handle up to 350 trillion trillion trillion of those 7-digit numbers. That is a mind-boggling 37 zeroes that makes the numeric value of the US debt ($15.7 trillion) look like pocket change. And, if you’re wondering, Google says version 5 will never be available in the public domain.

Cerf created what we know as today’s Internet protocol while he was at Stanford University in the early 1970s. So, in a sense, we can say the Internet was invented right here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

All of this reminded me of a wonderful book I came across a few years ago: The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage.  The telegraph, “an expeditious method of conveying intelligence” with the use of electricity, began to be realized in Paris in 1743. Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet connected 200 monks, each holding 25-foot iron wires, and zapped them with a battery-powered electric shot. According to Standage, “The simultaneous exclamations and contortions of a mile-long line of monks revealed that electricity could be transmitted over a great distance … instantly.”

In 1850, George F. Sweeney and T. E. Baugh, proprietors of the Merchants’ Exchange at Montgomery and Sacramento Streets, desired faster reports of the types of goods arriving in bustling San Francisco. They picked the hill with the best view beyond the Golden Gate and built a semaphore. This primitive technology consisted of a large mast with two hinged arms that, when positioned in certain ways, signaled the types of ships (and therefore, the types of goods for exchange they may carry) before they docked. It was this so-called “telegraph” that gave Telegraph Hill its name. They built a second semaphore at Point Lobos in 1851, with better views of ships approaching from north and south. But, on foggy days, the signal sent from Point Lobos was obscured in the roiling damp mist.

With instant messaging via electrical transmission coming into vogue, Sweeney and Baugh decided to upgrade. The first-ever telegraph transmission on the Pacific Coast occurred in San Francisco on September 22, 1853 between Point Lobos and Telegraph Hill. Fog would no longer stand in the way of rapid communication.

Nearly concurrent with this event was the first long-distance communication with the Gold Country. James Gamble, working for the California State Telegraph Company, was in charge of the party laying the first telegraph wire between San Francisco and Marysville (via the San Francisco peninsula). Upon extending the line as far as today’s Belmont (about 23 miles south of the City), Gamble successfully transmitted the team’s progress to San Francisco City Hall. He did so nightly thereafter until the team reached their destination at Marysville (about 40 miles north of Sacramento) on October 24, 1853. According to the Annals of San Francisco, “By means of this telegraph, San Francisco was brought into instant communication with San José, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, and other towns in the interior.” The cost: up to $2 for transmission of a Twitter-like 10 words (about $50 today).

Gamble would later play a major role in efforts to extend wire across the continent. The California State Telegraph Company consolidated into the Overland Telegraph Company with the task of extending wire to Salt Lake City, Utah. Western Union was responsible for running lines from the East. After an arduous five months of work across an unforgiving landscape, the first signal from Salt Lake came through on October 24, 1861 at 5:13 pm: “The line is complete.” The next transmission was from Brigham Young to H. W. Carpentier, president of Overland Telegraph, that completion of the line “… under many unfavorable circumstances in so short a time is beyond our most sanguine anticipations.” Later that evening, the first transcontinental transmission from the Pacific coast made its way to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC. In this first year of the Civil War, Californians wished “… to express their loyalty to the Union and their determination to stand by its government on this its day of trial. They regard that government with affection and will adhere to it under all fortunes.”

San Francisco was now in instant communication with the Atlantic seaboard and news from throughout the country was received with minimal delay. Sounding at all familiar? Just replace “Atlantic seaboard” above with global, or even interplanetary. Standage was absolutely spot-on in his observations that the Victorians’ telegraph was a true precursor to the Internet.


View Victorian Era Instant Messaging in San Francisco in a larger map


Sources

  1. IPv6 Overview. Available at Google.com.
  2. The US Debt Clock. Available at the USDebtClock.org.
  3. Exhibits – 1970s. At ComputerHistory.org.
  4. Standage T.The Victorian Internet. 1998. The Berkeley Publishing Group.
  5. Soulé F, Gihon JH, Nisbet J. The Annals of San Francisco, 1855 (Facsimile edition, 1998).
  6. Anonymous. A signal station on Telegraph Hill: Gold Rush communications. Available at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
  7. Gamble J. Early reminisces of the telegraph on the Pacific Coast. The Californian. 1881. Available at TelegraphHistory.org.
  8. Gamble J. Wiring a continent: the making of the U.S. transcontinental telegraph line. The Californian. 1881. Available at TelegraphHistory.org.

© 2012. Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco.     Last update August 12, 2012.

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