Tuesday, November 16

A good cable car article

I ran across a very well done article with accompanying photos about San Francisco’s cable car system, the only one remaining in the world. Twenty-four photos and a fascinating movie taken from the front of a cable car heading down Market Street toward the Ferry Building not too long before the 1906 earthquake.

Don’t click on the movie featured in the article though; go here instead for a much better version presented by the SFFilmMuseum. At the 7:35 point in the film, check out the wheels on the old heavy wagon to the right of the frame. I wonder if they fell off by the time the movie ended!

San Francisco is a very pedestrian-packed city today. The difference is that back then there were apparently no crosswalks and definitely no traffic signals. Horse-drawn wagons and buggies, cars, streetcars, and mobs of people are simply going every which way in this film. Even in 1906, there were tourists—one of the long streetcars crossing in front of the cable car is labeled SIGHT SEEING CAR. Very worthwhile.

Here is a more modern version of the same trip from 2005. In a hundred years, it will be as fascinating as the 1906 version.

As a side note, restoring a film made in 1906 is not simply a matter of removing dust and scratches. If you’ll look closely, the image seems to shimmer as if you’re looking at it through moving water. That is because film a hundred years ago was made of nitrate, a very flammable material related to the main ingredient of dynamite. It was very sensitive to its environment, and would shrink and stretch and respond to changes in temperature and humidity. The emulsion that held the light-sensitive silver nitrate onto the film was made of gelatin, the same stuff you eat in Jell-O: rendered bones and hooves (What? Your mom didn’t tell you that?). Many years ago at the high ranch I had a long discussion with Frank Thomas, Walt Disney’s head of animation, who was a guest along with his family. He explained how difficult it was to re-film old animation from the late 1930s. The “cells” were drawn and painted on a similar material: cellulose acetate. He said that after a few decades the cells would shrink and stretch and do all kinds of things; they wouldn’t fit on the registration pins anymore. I suggested that he talk to their suppliers and switch to polyester, the very stable film base we had just started using in the commercial printing business, which I had just departed to work at the resort ranch (and marry Karla). “You’d have to bang heads,” he replied, implying that the people at Disney were locked into doing things “the old way.”

Credit: CNET News

1 comment:

Susan said...

I watched the two videos and was fascinated. It was amazing to see what liberties traffic took one hundred years ago - there seemed to be little in the way of rules for pedestrians or horses or motorised transport. I liked how a young man in each video zigzagged across the tram's path in fun. Nice continuity!