If you think of San Francisco and you’re all out of enormous bridges, one of the most iconic aspects that comes to mind is the city’s most recognized and nostalgic forms of mass transportation. If you’re American and have ever been in the rice and paste aisle of a grocery store, you may also know it as part of the advertisement for Rice-A-Roni. If you’ve ever watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, you know that today’s word is the only way to get to the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe. Naturally, we’re talking about cable cars – trolleys, if you prefer – which have had quite an interesting route on their way to becoming synonymous with San Francisco.
Looking specifically at the term, it can be broken down into its 2 component words: cable and car. Initially meaning ‘a large rope/chain used on a ship’, the word cable comes to us from the Old North French cable, which originated from the Latin capere, meaning ‘to take or seize’. As a “wheeled vehicle,” car can be traced back to the Old North French carre, the Latin carrum, and the original Gaulish karros, meaning a ‘two-wheeled war chariot.’
When it comes to usage in the English language, as could be imagined, the separate words existed long before the combination was created. The first term to appear was cable, which can be found in the turn-of-the-13th-century Middle English poem, Layamon’s Brut, which states that: ‘he expertly handled the cables’. Appearing a century later, around 1320, as was recorded in Joseph Thomas Fowler’s 1899 work, Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham, we can see an entry for: “In 24 Carcloutis cum clavis pro eisdem. (24 car clouts (iron plates to prevent axle wear) with a key for them.)” Unsurprisingly, the term cable car didn’t appear until 1887 (approximately 60 years after they were invented), in J. Bucknall Smith’s A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction, where he states that: “The excellent control of the cable cars is..admirably demonstrated upon this line.”
Beyond words and usages, what makes cable cars different from other forms of mass transit, such as trams and subways, is how they work. Not requiring overhead electrical lines or electrified tracks for momentum, cable cars are powered by, well, a cable. Here’s how it works: a motor/engine moves a large cable at a constant speed, and the cars attach to the moving cable by using a grip on the bottom of the car, which looks like a large pair of pliers and gives the car its momentum. Conversely, in order to stop the cable car, it simply involves releasing the grip from the cable and slowly applying the brakes found on each individual car.
Not specifically requiring electrification, cable cars may be a bit older than you think. Originally used for transporting coal, the first railway to use rope cable was the Fawdon (near Newcastle) Railway in 1826. The first recorded use of a cable-operated railway for transporting people would happen 14 years later, thanks to the London and Blackwall Railway.
For San Franciscans, the use of cable cars involves a British immigrant, the California Gold Rush and disaster. Arriving in San Francisco in 1852, Andrew Smith Hallidie, the son of the man who filed the first patent in Great Britain for the manufacture of wire-rope (cable), decided to use the Gold Rush boom as a way to find more applications for wire cable. In 1869, inspiration came from tragedy, when Hallidie witnessed an accident involving a horse-drawn streetcar that was unable to deal with San Francisco’s wet cobblestone streets and hilly terrain. After several years of perfecting the plan, Hallidie tested the first cable car system in August of 1873, and the system began adding lines and entering into service the following month.
Over the years, many cities have had their own cable car systems, such as Paris, London, Melbourne, New York and Chicago; however, with time, technology, and efficiency, cable car systems eventually fell by the wayside, replaced by subways, buses, etc. On the other hand, several cities now operate modernised systems, involving fully automated cars and other forms of propulsion in places like Venice, Milan, and Las Vegas. So, what has kept San Francisco from either modernising or ditching cable cars? They simply didn’t want to. According to SFGATE: “In the late 1940s, city officials decided it was time to shutter the aging cable car system. Luckily, SF citizen Friedel Klussmann, along with two dozen women’s groups, formed the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cable Cars. Klussmann’s efforts are credited with convincing the city to keep a few cable car lines.”