The Mechanics’ Institute: San Francisco’s first tech incubator

Even in the 19th century, ordinary San Franciscans embraced innovation… and Ghirardelli chocolates

Before Dreamforce, before Apple’s blowout product launches, even before the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, another event represented the pinnacle of San Francisco’s tech industry.

In the 1800s, the Mechanics’ Institute’s industrial exhibitions showcased the latest innovations developed in San Francisco, from Andrew Hallidie’s cable car components to Levi Strauss’ jeans to Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, a predecessor to the motion picture.

These annual fairs were hugely popular civic events, signalling 19th century San Franciscans’ fascination with new technology. The Mechanics’ Institute itself, founded in 1854, embodied many enduring San Francisco values, with its commitment to egalitarianism, its emphasis on education for the masses and its embrace of play.

Today, the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Club in the Financial District is hardly the innovation hub it once was, but for some entrepreneurs and dreamers, it continues to provide a quieter alternative to the glitzy, caffeinated co-working spaces and private clubs that increasingly define The City’s tech scene.

The Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Club entrance at 57 Post St. in downtown San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Club entrance at 57 Post St. in downtown San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Mechanics’ institutes were common throughout the English-speaking world in the 1800s, providing vocational education to the community. “I think of the Mechanics’ Institute as one of the first workforce development organizations in San Francisco,” says CEO Kimberly Scrafano.

The Mechanics’ Institute library contains awards and reports from 19th century exhibitions. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The Mechanics’ Institute library contains awards and reports from 19th century exhibitions. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

In the 19th century, San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute frequently hosted classes and lectures on subjects such asphotography and metalworking. Its library, which predates San Francisco Public Library by 25 years, was stocked with technical books and patents. Its facilities also served as auxiliary classrooms for the University of California in the 1870s. As a relic of this arrangement, the Mechanics’ Institute held a seat on the UC Board of Regents until 1974.

Another key component of the Mechanics’ Institute was its chess club, which the institute says is the longest continuously operating club of its kind in the country. “The intention was really to create a space where people could come learn and also socialize,” Scrafano says. “It was kind of like a second home. It still is to a lot of folks.”

Chess boards are set up for players at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club, which has been in San Francisco since 1854 and is the longest continuously operated chess club in the United States. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Chess boards are set up for players at the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club, which has been in San Francisco since 1854 and is the longest continuously operated chess club in the United States. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

However, the Mechanics’ Institute really made its mark on city life through its industrial exhibitions. These Victorian pageants showcased the latest in technology and culture in a populist, festive setting complete with musical performances and dances.

In addition to the inventions of Hallidie, Strauss and Muybridge, many other remarkable items were exhibited to the people of San Francisco at these fairs, according to Taryn Edwards, a librarian and historian at the Mechanics’ Institute. At the 1876 exhibition, Father Joseph Neri, a professor at St. Ignatius College, which is now the University of San Francisco, demonstrated electric light years before Thomas Edison invented his incandescent light bulb. At the 1890 exhibition, San Franciscan Louis Glass demonstrated his coin-operated phonograph, a forerunner of the jukebox.

Edible innovations were also proudly on display, foreshadowing The City’s foodie culture. Exhibition-goers could sample Folgers and Hills Bros. coffee, Ghirardelli chocolate, Martinelli’s apple cider (which was at the time alcoholic) and wines from Beringer, Krug and Korbell.

No wonder the fairs were hugely popular: The 1857 fair saw 10,000 attendees, equivalent to one-quarter of The City’s population. By the 1880s, the month-long exhibitions attracted more than half a million visitors annually.

A cable car stands outside the Mechanics’ Institute’s sixth pavilion at Larkin and Grove streets, which held exhibitions from 1882 to 1899. (Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives)

A cable car stands outside the Mechanics’ Institute’s sixth pavilion at Larkin and Grove streets, which held exhibitions from 1882 to 1899. (Courtesy Mechanics’ Institute Archives)

The exhibitions were remarkably egalitarian for their day, allowing anyone to set up a display until the capacity limit was reached. The inaugural 1857 fair featured three Black exhibitors. In subsequent years, about a quarter of exhibitors were women. Chinese immigrants and other immigrant communities were represented at the fairs as well. The Mechanics’ Institute itself never had prohibitions against members according to race, religion or sex.

In the 1860s and ’70s, Mechanics’ Institute President Andrew Hallidie had pretensions of turning the industrial exhibitions into World’s Fairs. While he only managed to attract a handful of foreign exhibitors, he inspired the crowd with his progressive rhetoric. The City “may view well with pride the production of her children,” he said in his closing speech at the 1869 exhibition. “But San Francisco has many things to learn. She must pursue a just policy, tempered with liberty, to all classes, whether from Europe, Asia or Africa.”

At the fair two years later, in a speech on the virtues of “peaceful industry,” Hallidie proclaimed, “a liberal and conscientious line of conduct, honesty of thought and action to all alike without distinction of color or race are essential to our prosperity as a community of a people.” (Hallidie became more conservative in later years, supporting anti-Chinese policies that he felt would benefit white workers.)

The exhibitions’ centrality in city life was evident in their locations. After operating in temporary venues throughout what is today the Financial District, the exhibition moved to a new hall in the middle of Union Square in 1868. Then in the 1880s, the Mechanics’ Institute opened an exhibition hall catty-corner from City Hall. After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the hall, the institute sold the land to The City for where it would build what is today Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

The earthquake and fire also destroyed the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room on Post and Montgomery streets, along with its entire collection. But out of this tragedy came an opportunity to build a bigger, revenue-generating space. The Albert Pissis-designed building, completed in 1910, includes the library and chess club, as well as ground floor retail space and several floors of offices that the organization leases out.

Beaux-Arts architecture is on display on the second floor of the Mechanics’ Institute Library. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Beaux-Arts architecture is on display on the second floor of the Mechanics’ Institute Library. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Today, even as The City explodes with glamorous co-working spaces like Shack15 in the Ferry Building, the Mechanics’ Institute remains part of the tech ecosystem. In recent years, a handful of startup founders have begun their businesses in the stacks of the library, moving to their own digs as their companies grew, Scrafano said. Many other members are freelance writers who participated in one of the institute’s 13 pre-COVID writing groups. Elite chess players can still be found scowling down at wooden chess tables on the fourth floor.

But the Mechanics’ Institute’s legacy also lives on in San Francisco’s grand public spaces, at Union Square and Civic Center Plaza, where more than a century ago The City’s restless creative spirit was on full display.

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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