When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone at San Francisco’s 2007 Macworld convention he called it, with typical understatement "a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.” It took $150 million to develop and Apple paid $1 million for the iphone.com domain name, but sold a million devices on its first weekend.
San Francisco – Long Read

The Pioneering spirit that never died

Photo by Jim Goldstein

San Francisco – Long Read The Pioneering spirit that never died

What can you say about San Francisco, a city that shaped and continues to shape the world as we know it? The history of San Francisco is the promise of gold that brought settlers West, until they could go no further; the pioneering spirit has never died. The Flower Power generation, which originated here in the 1960s, shaped modern beliefs; a new generation is defining our virtual world through companies like as Apple and Facebook. In the history of San Francisco is our present: in its past, our future.

Mark Harris
Mark Harris Travel Writer

In a quirk of fate for the history of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge would have been painted in black and yellow stripes if the US Navy had had its way; or a stark black and white if the city had given in to the Army. Luckily, the project's directors listened to consulting architect Irving Morrow instead. “Orange vermilion is luminous, undergoes atmospheric changes with great beauty, is prominent without insistence, enhances the architectural scale to the utmost, and gives weight and substance,” he wrote enthusiastically in 1935.

The opening, only 75 years ago in 2012, was a defining moment for the city. Until then, San Francisco had been known for the Gold Rush, a devastating 1906 earthquake and its subsequent fire. Now it would be a luminous beacon for innovation and progress. In the decades that followed, the Bay Area nurtured cultural movements that would sweep the nation and the world, and that still guide the footsteps of the city’s 16 million annual visitors.

Glimpse the ghosts of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums as you sip a coffee or rough red wine in the streets of North Beach. Kerouac influenced countless writers, and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and, of course, The Beatles whose name is a tribute to his Beat Generation. Smell the psychedelic past in the air of Haight-Ashbury where the hippie philosophy was nurtured in rambling Victorian houses, giving rise to a philosophy of freedom that still governs the Internet. Or wander into The Castro for an education in gay rights at the country’s only GLBT Museum or in its bustling bars and clubs.

All the loose nuts rolled into California

Why did San Francisco become such a progressive city? It’s partly the cheap living in the mild California climate that attracted both the down-at-heel Beat poets and the immigrant German organic farmers whose Lebensreform (life-reform) philosophy laid the foundations for the hippie lifestyle. Or maybe it’s just that the restless spirits who made America could go no further west once they hit the Pacific coastline and their yearning to explore turned inward. “America has a westward tilt, so all the loose nuts rolled into California,” as critics say.

Despite the state motto – “Eureka!” or “I found it!” – dating back to that 1849 Gold Rush, whatever people come west for, they don’t always find it and throughout the history of San Francisco there's been a major homeless population. The “California Dream” of great wealth from hard work and some good luck, however, has long replaced the original “American Dream” based on religious liberty, freedom from tyranny and building a modest living, generation after generation.

The Gold Rush also gave us tent salesman Levi Strauss and his idea for blue canvas work pants, the jeans that are now a worldwide, classless uniform whether you are a laborer or a billionaire such as the late Steve Jobs. Expertise gained in making wire rope for the mines led London-born Andrew Smith Hallidie in 1873 to develop with engineer William E. Eppelsheimer the cable cars that are such a San Francisco icon. Hallidie’s real wealth came from the worldwide patents he held on the technology, proving that the shift to making money from ideas, rather than from making things, is not a recent one.

The Golden Gate Bridge was an idea as much as a feat of engineering. It was the first time the city had made a conscious attempt to muscle its way onto the world stage, to deliver something not just functional but inspirational. It is just a bridge in the same way that the iPhone is just a mobile phone. Both are crafted with a care that raises them far beyond the ordinary. Morrow’s justification for painting the bridge shocking orange, for instance, could have come straight from Apple founder Steve Jobs. “The color recommended is undoubtedly not the cheapest one that could be chosen,” he said. “But the margin of difference between the cheapest thing and the right thing is not sufficient to justify jeopardizing a project of this magnitude.”

His fellow designers were equally innovative

Like Jobs, Morrow was a perfectionist. While the Bridge was still just scaffolding and raw steel, he was already specifying the exact position, angle and wattage of floodlights to showcase it in the dark: “Towers enveloped in a mellow glow at the base and at the tops practically disappearing into the night.” Morrow was also responsible for the strikingly modernist towers and the many art deco details visible on a leisurely bike ride across the Golden Gate, the only way to appreciate it properly.

His fellow designers were equally innovative. Structural engineer Leon Moisseiff experimented with an all-steel roadway that his “deflection theory” told him would remain flexible even over the bridge’s record-breaking 1,280-meter span. He was right – although his similar design for a crossing of the Tacoma Narrows in Washington succumbed almost immediately to wind-induced torsional flutter.

No one ever accused the children of the Flower Power generation of being perfectionists but, just as their hippie philosophy has shaped the history of San Francisco, so too does San Francisco continue to shape the future. From computer hardware transforming our daily routines, to software companies that determine our virtual world, it reaches into every corner of modern life. The most fertile ground for these revolutionary ideas is the Santa Clara Valley. It stretches south from San Francisco airport to San Jose, a high tech city where the flagship Marriott hotel has a squadron of iPads in the lobby and even the trams sport wi-fi.

The small towns sandwiched between the San Francisco Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains often feel more like sleepy middle America than the powerhouse for the world’s digital economy but Palo Alto is ground zero for the electronics explosion. It was here in the 1950s that Stanford University researchers and tiny start-ups brainstormed the transistors, semi- conductors and silicon wafers that would kick- start computing and give the region a new name: Silicon Valley.

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