San Francisco's Cable Cars Were Invented By A Londoner

By M@ Last edited 13 months ago
San Francisco's Cable Cars Were Invented By A Londoner
Image: Shutterstock

They're as iconic as the London red bus or a New York cab, but did you know that San Francisco's cable cars were conceived by a Londoner?

Humble beginnings near Leicester Square

Andrew Smith Hallidie. Image public domain.

Andrew Smith was born near Leicester Square in 1836. He spent the first 16 years of his life in London, gaining an apprenticeship in a machine shop and drawing office.

His father, also called Andrew, was a prolific inventor, based at 69 Princes Street (now the southern end of Wardour Street). He encouraged a love of engineering in his son. The pair must surely have visited the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851.

Coming to America

The following year, father and son emigrated to California, lured like so many to the gold mines. Smith senior soon lost heart and returned to London, but junior stayed on. After four years of toil he finally made his name by applying his engineering skills. Using his father's designs he developed a wire rope for pulling carts out of mines that greatly improved efficiency.

By now styling himself as Andrew Smith Hallidie (the latter name lifted from his uncle, a noted physician), the young engineer soon began adapting his wire ropes to other uses, including bridge building.

The Londoner who transformed San Francisco

1876 view of the cable car.
An 1876 view of the cable car. Image public domain.

His most famous accomplishment was the Clay Street Hill Railway — the world's first successful cable car, which pulled passenger cars up a steep incline in San Francisco. Hallidie's exact role is disputed — instigator, promoter, engineer, consultant, or a combination — but his expertise with wire ropes must have been crucial to the enterprise.

Early photo of a SF cable car.
Early photo of the Clay Street Hill cable car. Image © Illustrated London News Group via British Newspaper Archive.

The cable car first carried passengers in 1873. It must have seemed like magic — a simple pair of carriages crawling up one of the steepest roads in the world, without a horse or so much as a puff of smoke.

The cable car was an immediate success and led to further lines across the city, much to the delight of Hallidie who grew rich on the patents. He devoted his later life to public service, and died in 1900 a wealthy, respected man.

The Clay Street Hill line has long since disappeared, but today's cable cars rely on the same cable-grip technology ushered in by Hallidie.

San Francisco would not be the same without the talented teenager who left Leicester Square for the California gold mines. In a reverse twist of fate, the old family home home is now the site of a much-derided American import: the Leicester Square M&Ms Store.

M and Ms store
The inventor of SF's cable cars was born right about here, in Leicester Square.

Last Updated 08 November 2022

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