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Wave Motors and Tide Machines at the Cliff House: 1886 to present

Copyright © 2003 by Christine Miller

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Christine Miller Stereocard - Wave Motor

Go out to the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco and walk down the winding path into the Sutro Baths cove. Midway down, another path will lead you to the observation platform above the Sutro Baths ruins. To the north you will see a large rock that was once the foundation of a San Francisco landmark - The Wave Motor at Land's End.

Today, you may still hear the local legend about that wave motor and the inventor who left it there.

The legend of "Ralph Starr and his Amazing Wave Machine" usually goes like this: A local inventor named Ralph Starr constructed a small model of a motor that he claimed would generate electricity from the constant motion of the waves. He convinced several prominent investors that his machine was a breakthrough in technology and he was then able to finance the construction of a large motor out by the Cliff House. Day after day, Starr worked tirelessly on his wave motor. Crowds would gather along the bluff to watch him work. Everyone was interested in the strange contraption and looked forward to its completion. Starr was secretive about the details of his motor, but his odd behavior was attributed to his unique genius.

At last, a day was set for the official unveiling of the wave motor. Crowds gathered and eagerly waited for the ceremony. The investors waited nervously for the inventor to come and start up his machine. They waited and waited and waited. They finally went over to the inventor's home to check on him. There, they found the remnants of a household that had been packed up quickly. Starr and his family had skipped town, along with the investors' money! The wave motor was abandoned. Nobody but Starr knew if it worked!

The real stories of the wave motors at the Cliff House are slightly different from the legend of Ralph Starr, but there is truth intertwined with the fiction. The legend itself must come from the turn of the 20th century when wave motor inventors and swindling promoters were in abundance in California. The name of Starr comes from a well publicized wave motor project by Frederick Starr in Southern California in 1909.

The Sutro Baths cove has been the primary place in San Francisco for experimentation with utilizing the power of the ocean. Two projects were not intended to generate electricity but to provide large amounts of ocean water. These two projects, the Aquarium and the Sutro Baths, are examples of tidal power because the water was moved by the force of the tides down a canal and into a settling pond where it was needed. Tidal mills dating back hundreds of years employed similar engineering to fill storage pools where the water would then be run through a water wheel to produce power for grain milling.

Five other projects along this shoreline were all experiments with wave motors. Their intended purpose was to generate electricity. These projects were designed to utilize the bobbing motion of the waves to move the motor's machinery. These were smaller experiments and although the costs in constructing them are mostly unknown, they were undoubtedly much less expensive than the two tidal power projects.

The First Wave Motor in California?

The first full scale wave motor built near the Cliff House was probably also the first in California. It was the invention of a man named E. Stern, of whom little is known. He went to engineer/businessman/ philanthropist Adolph Sutro in 1886 and asked to lease some land on Sutro's beachfront property in order to build a wave motor. He built his wave motor a few hundred yards north of the Cliff House just along the shore of the southern entrance into the Golden Gate. For Mr. Stern's purposes, the location was ideal. It was, however, in a major shipping channel.

On the evening of January 16, 1887 the schooner Parallel drifted past Stern's wave motor and became lodged on the rocks of the big bluff nearby. Adolph Sutro and other locals went down to the beach to aid the ship. Finding no one aboard, they adjourned until morning.

The Parallel, loaded with 40 tons of dynamite and other highly flammable materials, had been on her way to Oregon when she ran into the rocks near the entrance of the Golden Gate. Her crew had wasted no time in abandoning her.

At 12:34 a.m., the Parallel's cargo exploded with such force that it was felt as far away as Sacramento and San Jose.

Stern's wave motor was only a short distance away. It was badly damaged by the blast and its plight was mentioned in the local papers.

The explosion also damaged the Cliff House but it was quickly remodeled. Two years passed, and Mr. Stern still seemed to be tinkering with his machine.

In 1889, he contacted Adolph Sutro about plans for a new wave motor, but Mr. Stern seemed indefinite. Sutro wanted Mr. Stern to succeed and offered him new leasing terms, but Stern had never paid his rent in the previous three years. By October of 1889, Sutro seems to have become rather exasperated with Mr. Stern and his exaggerated ideas about his wave motor. Mr.Stern claimed that his wave motor had the potential of 10,000 horsepower but Sutro flatly doubted it could come up with 100 horsepower at best.

In the end, Mr. Stern must have given up on his wave motor. What exactly happened to it is unknown. It was completely gone by August 1891 when a new wave motor was erected in the same area.

How was Mr. Stern's wave motor supposed to work? The few descriptions of this machine that are known at this time don't give a very good idea of the mechanics. Years later The Examiner described it thus, "That (machine) operated in a wiggle-waggle sort of way depending on the pushing power of the waves against a broad surface, something like the centerboard of a flat-bottomed vessel." 1

The action of the ocean waves against the machinery caused a pumping action that drew water into a large pipe that went up side of the cliff. The intention was probably to pump the water up into reservoirs on the cliff where it could then be run down through a system of water wheels that generated electricity.

First Tidal Energy Project in California: Sutro's Aquarium

While Mr. Stern worked on his machine on one side of the rocky bluff they were now calling "Parallel Point", Mr. Sutro set to work in earnest on the other side on a three year old project he called "The Aquarium". Its purpose was educational. He wanted to create a large tide pool that would be filled and emptied with ocean water. It would also be filled with any accompanying ocean life that became caught up in the rush of water into it. By doing so he could bring the wonders of ocean life into a confined area where people could safely observe it up close.

The Aquarium was an enormous project although its function was as an educational novelty. It gives insight into the mind of Adolph Sutro. He seemed to be at his best when he was involved with a project that moved water from one place to another. Between 1865 and 1879 Sutro had been responsible for an enormous three mile tunnel project through the Nevada mountains to drain and ventilate the silver mines of the Comstock Lode. The Aquarium reflects the combination of mechanical ability, creativity and audacity that was unique to Sutro.

Sutro baths work

The Aquarium required carving a catch-basin into the side of Parallel Point where a natural shelf existed 17 feet above mean tide level. Sutro had noticed the waves breaking over that shelf and decided to make use of it. The catch-basin he built there, 72 ft long by 20 ft wide and 3 ft deep, was designed to catch water from three directions. The next step required boring a canal through Parallel Point. The canal was 8 feet high and 153 feet long with a slope downwards of 3 feet in a hundred. The canal connected the catch-basin to a settling basin on the shore, built 14 feet above mean tide level, with a capacity of 250,000 gallons. The settling basin, built of rock and cement, was 80 ft long, 40 ft wide and ten ft deep.

On September 3, 1887 the first part of Sutro's Aquarium plan was unveiled. At 12:30 in the afternoon, the canal gates were opened and the ocean water rushed in. In twenty minutes the Aquarium's settling basin was filled up. It was emptied in six minutes. The experiment was conducted several times in order to show off the success of the venture. The event was covered by several local newspapers including The Examiner which quoted Sutro as saying, "...Some people said I was an old fool when I commenced this work, but they will change their minds in a short time. The possibilities of utilizing the force of the sea's waves will soon be made manifest." 2

The Second Wave Motor at the Cliff House

A second wave motor was constructed in 1891 on a large rock near the site of the first. This wave motor was the invention of a man named Henry P. Holland. It is Holland's wave motor that became a familiar local landmark due to its longevity. It survives to this day only in photographs and stereoviews. The legend of Ralph Starr probably arose from the need to explain the presence of the old machine out on the rock.

Mr. Holland was backed financially by mining man J.A. Fischer. In August of 1891 they announced that they would soon be erecting their wave motor but did not say much else. They wanted to keep the details quiet until their machine was proven a success and kept a guard on site to prevent anyone from inspecting the machine.

This wave motor operated from the movement of a large 3,000 pound iron buoy that was moved up and down by motion of the waves. The pump was activated by the rise and fall of the buoy. The pump was estimated to work at eight strokes per minute, which would raise water up through a pipe on the side of one of the nearby cliffs. From there it would be run back down through a series of water wheel motors that would generate electricity which they hoped to sell to manufacturers.

This may be the first wave motor built in California for a commercial purpose, but it is difficult to determine if it was ever finished and it seems to have been a small-scale venture. Not much else is known about it at this time. None of the photographs of this wave motor include its 3,000 pound iron buoy and that may give quick insight into this project's lack of success.

The first large scale wave motor for the commercial production of electricity was built in Capitola, near Santa Cruz, in 1896 by an inventor named Gerlach. It was an enormous machine but it was not a success.

Holland must not have waited long to abandon his wave motor. If not successful, it was well built. The wave motor remained attached to its rock for 59 years!

In 1947 Chronicle columnist Robert O'Brien wrote about the wave motors at the Cliff House and the legend of Ralph Starr in his column titled, "Man's Dream of Harnessing the Sea". In doing so he also gave an eyewitness account of the condition of the two remaining wave motors at that time.

Three years later, when Holland's wave motor was finally blown away in a storm, O'Brien noted its passing in his column. "I couldn't resist entering a record of the passing of this bleak landmark, if you can call it that. ....the disappearance of the framework in a storm ends one phase of this curious San Francisco story... " 3

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Images: 1) "Life-Saving Station, near Cliff House, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.", Underwood & Underwood, Stereocard. Courtesy of Christine Miller. 2) Adolph Sutro at work at "Parallel Point" in the Sutro Baths cove. The exact date of this photograph is unknown but it would have been taken between 1887 and 1891. It shows the period of construction between the Aquarium and the Sutro Baths. Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

1. "Harnessing the Ocean", The Examiner, 8/5/1891, pg 4 col. 3.

2. "Sutro's Scheme", Daily Examiner, September 4, 1887, pg. 3 col. 4.

3. "All in a Day's Mail", Robert O'Brien, S.F. Chronicle, 1/11/1950, pg.16 col. 5.

Contribute your own stories about the Cliff House and Baths!

Page launched 4 October 2003.

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