Andrew Smith Hallidie: the Englishman behind San Francisco’s iconic cable cars


Every city has its own iconic form of transport.

New York has yellow taxis, London has double-decker buses, Bangkok has tuk-tuks, Amsterdam has the bicycle.

And San Francisco has its cable cars.

But what would you say if you found out that San Francisco’s cable cars were invented by a man from Leicester Square?

That man was Andrew Smith Hallidie – and he’s the subject of today’s instalment of the Innovator Series. 

World’s first cable hauled street railway

Andrew was born in London in 1836, to a Scottish family with a serious scientific pedigree.

His father, the elder Andrew Smith, was a prolific inventor. His uncle, Andrew Hallidie (Andrew, it seems, was a family name) was royal physician to King William IV and Queen Victoria.

In 1852, father and son left England to seek their fortune in California.

Andrew the younger spent some time panning for gold. It was during this period working in the mines that he developed a wire rope for pulling carts along underground, or across chasms.

He then took this expertise and applied it over-ground, setting up the Clay Street Hill Railway on a steep hill in the city of San Francisco in 1873.

This was the world’s first successful cable car, carrying passengers for a distance of 2,800 feet, and rising 307 feet.

Testing the limits of success

And it very nearly failed. Andrew had agreed with the city authorities that he would deliver the cable car on the 1st August 1873: a day later, and the rights to the franchise would expire.

As the deadline approached, it became clear that time was running short.

The cable car was installed by the 1st of August as agreed. But it hadn’t been tested.

The test eventually took place in the early hours of the 2nd - and it is rumoured that Smith Hallidie carried out the test drive himself after the driver was too afraid to do it.

Despite his few hours’ lateness, the city still awarded him the franchise, and the Clay Street Hill Railway was an immediate success.

Passengers flocked to the cable car, and further lines opened throughout the city.  

One innovation that changed history

The cable car is still a feature of San Fran today.

It’s a notoriously hilly city, and the people of the 1800s were probably very glad to have something to save them the difficult climb.

In this sense, the invention of the cable car improved lives. It helped make all parts of the city accessible for the people of San Francisco – which is just the kind of thing we are hoping to do with the introduction of CAVs.

Connected and autonomous vehicles have the potential to open up our urban areas, making it easy to get to places that previously were difficult.

At the same time, they’re set to make our roads safer, reducing the potential for human error on the road.

SMLL aims to have the people of London travelling just as easily as the people of San Francisco. Except, instead of gliding around on a cable, we’ll be driven around in a CAV.

Ultimately, the Andrew Smith Hallidie’s cable car is a great illustration of the way one small innovation can make all the difference - and become something iconic.

Check out last week’s innovators blog post on Edgar Hooley, the man who invented tarmac.