Silicon Valley After the Gold Rush

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After the Gold Rush

“Just over twenty thousand people lived in San Jose in 1900 compared with San Francisco’s 342,000, one of the top 10 cities of the USA. There is a good reason to argue that the San Francisco counterculture was founded in 1859 by Joshua Norton, an English Jew raised in South Africa who had emigrated to San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush but ended up dealing with rice instead of gold, and who in that year declared himself Emperor of the United States. He wore Napoleonic clothes and issued his own currency. Not only was he respected by the citizens of San Francisco, but a huge crowd showed up at his funeral (he died penniless in 1880).”

“An Italian Jesuit priest named Giuseppe Neri, who had studied chemistry, built his own electrical lighting system using a device that had been used in the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and demonstrated his futuristic system to the public in 1871, eight years before Thomas Edison (on the other coast) demonstrated his light bulb. In July 1876 (the centennial of the US declaration of independence) Neri lit San Francisco’s Market Street with arc lamps (the predecessors of the light bulb). In 1879 the California Electric Company (now known as PG&E) started providing electricity to customers in San Francisco, although that electrical power could be used only for arc lamps. San Jose followed suit and, eight years before Paris had the Tour Eiffel, the city erected the 72-meter tall San Jose Electric Light Tower, inaugurated in 1881 by newspaper publisher JJ Owen, the world’s tallest free-standing iron structure.”

“When James Lick died in 1876, he was the wealthiest man in California. His “high-tech” occupation had been piano manufacturing. He had in fact accumulated a little fortune by building and selling pianos in South America. In Peru he had met Domingo Ghirardelli, a maker of chocolate. When Lick moved to California, he invited Ghirardelli to set up shop in San Francisco, an advice that turned out to be golden: one year later gold was discovered near Sacramento, and both immigrants benefited from the economic boom. Lick was smart enough to buy land all around the Bay Area, while living in the small village of San Jose.”

“Lick was planning to use his fortune to build himself the largest pyramid on Earth, but somehow the California Academy of Sciences convinced him to fund the Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory, to be equipped with the most powerful telescope on Earth. That observatory, erected in 1887 on nearby Mt Hamilton, was pretty much the only notable event in the early history of San Jose.”

“Denis Kearney was the exact opposite of Emperor Norton. A populist agitator and demagogue during the economic depression of 1873-78, his rallies attracted thousands of people in San Francisco. He railed against the political establishment, the media, and the illegal Chinese immigrants (that constituted about 20% of the labor force). In 1878 his Workingmen’s Party won the elections and changed the state constitution to ban Chinese immigrants (a measure popular enough that in 1882 the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act).”

“In 1872 California’s governor Newton Booth, a saloon keeper turned lawyer, enacted the state’s first civil code, which was revolutionary in scope and reach. One section in particular made California unique: it banned “non-compete agreements”, i.e. it made it illegal for a company to require that its employees join a competitor or start their own firm to compete with their former employer.”

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