The Dawn of Wireless in the San Francisco Bay Area

The ability to communicate across long distances brought dramatic social and economic changes to American society during the 19th century. The telegraph, and later the telephone, brought news and information from across the country within hours. Major cable companies crossed the Atlantic and dreamed of linking the continents, but were limited by the high cost and technical difficulty of laying cable across the Pacific.

By the 1880s, new experiments in electro-magnetic (“wireless”) currents were underway. By 1895, Gugliermo Marconi’s experiments in England were being replicated in California, sending Morse code dots and dashes across increasingly longer distances. In 1899, the world’s first wireless message from ship to shore was sent through the fog from a lightship off the Golden Gate to a shore receiver in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Call captured the excitement of Federal Telegraph Company’s successful trans-Pacific wireless transmission in July 1912 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
The San Francisco Call captured the excitement of Federal Telegraph Company’s successful trans-Pacific wireless transmission in July 1912 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

It was more than a passion for technological experimentation that drove this rush to devise new and better ways to send and receive wireless telegraphy. San Francisco Bay was the heart of the West Coast maritime and transportation industry, and the location of key U.S. Navy and Army installations. Wireless offered exciting new means for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, vital for rescue and safety as well as navigation and business. The Bay Area had both the investment wealth and the business to justify wireless development.

By World War I, Bay Area wireless experimenters and entrepreneurs were competing to outfit ships, airplanes, and radio stations around the world with newly developed technology. Local companies were challenging manufacturers on the East Coast to produce vacuum tubes, radios and other electronics gear.