When the Golden Gate Bridge Opened, 74 Years Ago


Welcome to San Francisco. It's May 27, 1937 and the Golden Gate Bridge is open for business. You could be one of the 200,000 people streaming across the new structure that day (above), or maybe you just glance over from time-to-time from your apartment at what had once seemed impossible. Either way, chances are you were filled the feeling of  "the technological sublime," as the historian David Nye calls it.

Americans have a peculiar desire for the technological sublime, Nye argues, finding "essentially religious feeling" in our own creations. Technology serves the role in this country what religion does in less pluralistic societies. It binds us together through ritual pilgrimages to the sites of our collective achievements, achievements like the Golden Gate Bridge.

If any man-made object can be called sublime, surely the Golden Gate Bridge can. More than a mile long, it crosses the turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay between rocky headlands. Three times the height of the Brooklyn Bridge, it arches through crosswinds, clouds, and fog, slim and elegant, a triumph of engineering skill.

Here, we present you with three artifacts that testify both to the engineering skill and to the sublime. First, at the top, you can watch silent newsreel footage of the opening day 74 years ago, courtesy of the Prelinger Archive. Then, we've created a gallery of the construction of the bridge from photos contained in the Online Archive of California.

And finally, as proof that San Franciscans have always loved their bridge and purple prose, we've embedded the official program of the Golden Gate Bridge FIESTA, a festival held from May 27 through June 2 in 1937. Here's how it begins:

With eager expectation, San Francisco and the citizens of the Redwood Empire have looked forward to this day when the mighty Golden Gate Bridge would be opened to the traffic of the world. And now that this glorious enterprise is completed, rejoicing is in every heart.

To you who have come from afar, we offer hospitality beyond measure. May the Bridge be a bond, uniting us ever in the bonds of brotherhood.

To you in these Western States, particularly those who live in the glorious realms of the Redwood Empire, and who joined us in financing this incomparable structure, we share this hour of high satisfaction in the accomplishment.

The Golden Gate Bridge Fiesta is a civic celebration in which you all are a part. We are all one, in spirit and in fact, in helping to make the occasion memorable.

The curtain rises. The pageant unrolls. Voices are lifted in song.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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