Main Title

The New Marine Telegraph
Telegraph Hill received it's name from the semaphore placed on it's summit in 1850 which advised the city of the approach of ships. It was referred to as the New Marine Telegraph, and as vessels made their way through the Golden Gate a lookout arranged the 2 arms of the semaphore to indicate the type of craft approaching. Certain arrangements could stimulate a burst of activity in town, especially when the arms of the semaphore indicated the arrival of the Pacific Mail Steamer with long awaited mail from the East Coast. The arrangement of the semaphores also indicated whether a vessel was friend or foe, or in distress, as well as it's type.

Semaphore Signals

The very first report of the New Marine Telegraph was with a single wooden arm which indicated "vessel in distress inside" (meaning inside the Golden Gate). The English bark "Daniel Grant" had run aground but luckily managed to dislodge herself. Another anecdote worth noting: one evening during a presentation of "The Hunchback" at a local theatre, an innocent actor appeared onstage with his arms outspread to ask "What does this mean my Lord?" and a voice in the crowd brought down the house by yelling "Side Wheel Steamer!"

Click on the 2 small pictures below for closeups.

Inner Station The New Marine Telegraph performed admirably but was not fast enough for some of those who wanted even more advanced notice of arriving ships. So a second semaphore was erected outside the Golden Gate (the Outer Station) on Pt. Lobos 6 miles from Telegraph Hill in 1851. The lookout there arranged his signals and the Inner Station on the hill repeated them.

Outer Station This visual system was cumbersome at best and totally useless in bad weather, so they decided to replace it with the new electromagnetic telegraph lines. In Sept., 1853, the electric telegraph was formally opened. The new telegraph expedited ship reporting but completely bypassed Telegraph Hill, and soon people on the streets lost the habit of looking up at the hill to see what ships were arriving. The Inner Station became a taproom for sightseers and over the years up to 40,000 people had carved their names in the walls. In 1870 a powerful storm destroyed it, leaving a pile of kindling in it's place.


The Time Ball
In a number of cities throughout the US in the last century the exact moment of noon was designated each day by the dropping of a time ball. The ball, a hollow metal sphere 2 to 6 feet in diameter, was hoisted to the top of a 20 to 30 foot shaft and allowed to fall precisely at noon. In a port like San Francisco's the time ball played an important part in checking the accuracy of ship chronometers.

Usually the ship's captains took their chronometers to a local watchmaker to be tested, but with all the fires sweeping down San Francisco's streets they were reluctant to leave their valuable instruments in the shops for the several days it took to test. A local watch and Chronometer maker proposed putting a time ball on the signal pole on Telegraph Hill, thus eliminating the need for the captains to take their chronometers off their ships.

Beginning in May, 1852, a time ball was dropped every day at noon, except Sundays, from the signal pole. The exact time (ie the exact second) the ball was dropped was kept secret by the city's observatory. For several days, a captain would record his observations of the time ball according to his chronometer, then compare his records to that of the city's, paying a small fee for the service. The time balls were in use on Telegraph Hill until the 1880's.

Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill - The Early Days circa 1850


This web page was prepared for the Telecommunications class at SRJC, CIS 78.11, Sec. 5294, Spring 2000. It describes a historical means of communication before the time of telegraph and phone lines, though just barely. Many people relied heavily on the semaphores and the time ball. I was inspired by a web page I discovered on the San Francisco Insider website and remembered a book I had about Telegraph Hill, which luckily was just unpacked from our recent move. It is "San Francisco's Telegraph Hill" by David F. Myrick, © 1971.

Valerie Brownrigg
1/26/00