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Augustus Jesse Bowie Jr.: A San Francisco Pioneer

When it comes to Dogpatch trailblazers, Augustus Jesse Bowie Jr. is a name we all should know.

Bowie was on the cutting edge of the technologies of his time in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His work fast-tracked the Bay Area’s rise as one of the most technologically advanced regions in the country. In fact, his large-capacity electrical switches helped provide power to the entire West Coast 100 years ago. Bowie, like today’s Bay Area innovators, was an inventor, entrepreneur, and forward-thinking mastermind of technology. Much of what he did happened right here at 815 Tennessee in Dogpatch.

Bowie, who graduated with honors in mathematics from Harvard in 1893, developed an early interest in electrical power. Electricity at the time was the up-and-coming technology that could permanently change the world, so, recognizing the importance of developing his knowledge, Bowie went on to study electrical and mechanical engineering at MIT, graduating in 1896.

Bowie brought his insights and knowledge back home to California and was soon on the way to creating an electrical revolution. After college, he worked in Sacramento for a while as an engineer for the Sacramento Electric, Gas and Railroad Company. By 1906, he had moved back to his birthplace, San Francisco, and soon filed a patent for a sophisticated switch that would innovate the entire industry. This switch was far safer than anything else in use at the time, greatly reducing the risk of damage to electrical components and shock to human operators.

Over the next few decades, Bowie patented numerous switches, components, voltage converters, and meters that would advance the industry.

Bowie opened the first Bowie Switch Company site in 1913 at the corner of 18th and Folsom Streets. His many inventions and patents made the company a success. By 1926, the Bowie Switch Company moved to a brand-new facility at 815 Tennessee Street, now the site of the 69 condominium residences known as 815 Tennessee. The original Bowie Switch Company building’s brick facade still stands as an homage to the electrical innovations that made history in Dogpatch and the world.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the Bowie Switch Company played a pivotal role in the electrification of the United States. Many major urban areas offered electricity to their homes, while rural and suburban areas did not. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted rural electrification, he created an even greater need for Bowie’s inventions. The Bowie Switch Company became a government contractor as the demand for electricity grew exponentially.

Unfortunately, most electrical systems in existence at the time only provided low voltage, which could only be transmitted consistently for about four miles, making it relatively useless beyond urban centers. Some companies switched to creating high-voltage and hydroelectric systems instead, which created electricity powerful enough to be transported much farther. The downside: the high voltage was so intense that it was likely to create explosions, destroy equipment, and cause serious injuries.

Bowie invented gargantuan switches to safely handle the electrical flow from systems such as the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams. Without his inventions, it would have been nearly impossible to safely manage the electrical flow or to transport it beyond a short range. While we don’t even give it a thought today, his 1,000-pound switches enabled generated power to be transmitted up to 250 miles away, bringing power to rural and outlying areas.

815 Tennessee was built at a time when Bowie was a creative force who already had four electric switch patents. The “new” 815 Tennessee celebrates his accomplishments and has adopted the motif of “alternating current” in the lobby’s light installation by Moz Designs. A wall of LEDs shines through perforated metal panels, giving 815 Tennessee an unusual energy and vibe.

We salute Augustus Jesse Bowie Jr. and the many innovations that put San Francisco at the forefront of the technological map and helped keep it there all these years.

 

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