Low Tech San Jose

August 15, 2019 orc1428308415337 1 comment

When you think of technology in San Jose, what comes to mind? Intelligent transit systems whisking brilliant design engineers to another day of fun and invention? Vast cutting-edge communications networks running silently and invisibly below ground? Smart homes woven into an advanced power grid? Probably none of these.

Of all the technology companies in Silicon Valley, only a small percentage make their home in San Jose, and only then because City Hall has doled out millions in subsidies to lure them. Why not more? Because San Jose is a technology backwater, not the leader its proximity to Silicon Valley would suggest.

The moniker "Capital of Silicon Valley" is just marketing. All the locals know that title rightly belongs to cities farther up the peninsula (San Jose is only the geographic center of the valley). But few people (not even locals) realize that, early on, San Jose was in fact the center of great technological and cultural innovation.

High-Tech Origins

San Jose technology was a forerunner of the current tech industry for nearly a century. Much of this is documented in Clyde Arbuckle's History of San Jose.

Communications Leader


The first inter-city telegraph line in the state became operational from San Jose to San Francisco. San Jose would become the first city in California on the Western Union system.

Advanced Power Grid


The world's first successful city-sized electric light tower was built in downtown San Jose, brilliantly illuminating the area and making a major advance in public safety. A scale replica can be found at the History Park. The city was also plumbed for natural gas far earlier than many other communities.

Modern Transit


San Jose trolley lines started their conversion from horse-drawn to overhead electric. A complex patchwork of motorized trolleys eventually covered all of San Jose and took its citizens not only from the most distant developments to the center as well as to industrial jobs, but also to outlying areas like Alum Rock Park for vacation and relaxation.

Original Smart Home


"Winchester Mystery House" spiritualist Sarah Winchester was actually a high-tech visionary, employing electric ignitors for gas lamps, a water recycling system that used gray water from indoors to irrigate the gardens around the house, and specially designed high-efficiency fruit dryers to maximize output from the vast orchards adjacent to the house.

Wireless Technology


The country's first licensed experimental radio station, KQW, had its home in downtown San Jose.

Network Infrastructure


San Jose had the west coast's first trans-Atlantic telephone service. Not Los Angeles. Not San Francisco.


By the 1920s, this innovative spirit was reflected in the structures in the strikingly inviting center of town and surrounding neighborhoods.

Attracting Business. Beautifully laid-out and of surprising architectural diversity, the downtown core buildings were full of merchants doing brisk business. The high-rise Bank of America tower was its centerpiece. "Auto Row" marked its southern end (where 1st and Market streets merge).

Entertainment. With a thriving theatrical spirit and many cultural events, San Jose was the go-to spot for both nearby and distant communities. Refer to Theaters of San Jose for some fantastic examples.

Planned communities. Alongside the downtown core were extensive and well-planned residential developments, with a balanced mix of industrial areas heading down Monterey Road. Ease of travel between home and work was integral to the efficiency of the city.

Low-Tech San Jose Today

Of the many areas where a purported high-tech Mecca should be leading the way, San Jose ranks near dead-last in most categories. The decline of San Jose innovation started after the Crash of 1929 and accelerated throughout the 1930s. A plan hatched in the 1950s to make San Jose more like Los Angeles sealed its fate.

Stagnant Infrastructure. We all know high-tech when we see it. But what does technological stagnation look like?

    • Dial telephone service didn't reach San Jose until 1949 -- thirty years after the technology had been introduced elsewhere.
    • By the 1950s, the trolley rails and overhead power lines were torn out to make for smoother  automobile lanes.
    • By the 1980s, power lines had been dangling over downtown for 100 years, so those with vision started a program to put them underground. But by the 2000s, these efforts at technology upgrade and neighborhood beautification were nearly abandoned.
    • Huge sidewalk communications boxes were outdated even when they were installed in the 1990s. They continue to blight neighborhoods everywhere.

Wasteful Water Metering. For nearly a decade, cities across the nation have had water flow monitoring at individual homes and businesses. Even small towns like Dubuque, Iowa use high-tech electronic metering to save million of gallons by catching water leaks at the outset. San Jose, a city in a chronic state of drought, has no such technology. Instead, the local water monopoly promotes "insurance", for a monthly fee - much like Mafia "protection".


Scary Streetscapes. Bright yellow streetlights, the norm in San Jose for decades, were put in from 1980 to cut glare to Lick Observatory -- an unattractive but understandable compromise. Today they have been replaced by the dimmest LED illumination imaginable, each unit barely able to illuminate the few square yards directly below it. Downtown San Jose streets are generally pretty safe -- they just seem scary.

Arrested Transit. Installed in the 1980s, the light rail transit system was a worthy attempt to revive the efficiency of the extensive trolley lines whose tracks were ripped out in the 1950s. But this new system never moved beyond the crudest of capabilities due to limitations of San Jose stoplight control. Even with freeways moving at a snail's pace on a daily basis, light rail is still significantly slower due to its 1940s-era block control systems.

Stop Light Control from the 'Seventies. While the equipment may get updated, the programming for traffic lights throughout San Jose has never moved beyond the sophistication of 50 years ago. Its capabilities are tied to the days of computer punched tape programming. Non-existent signal synchronization means lights 50 yards apart work against each other. Wasted intersection time turns 15 minute commutes into hour-long daily slogs.

So when you think of High-Tech San Jose, focus on the positive, that marvelous time 100 years ago when San Jose was truly a tech giant!

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