2008 – 2009 |The San Francisco Foghorns are Public Art

Public art presupposes the public sphere and produces a public in relation to that concept. Unlike popular or mass art, it does not assume a preexistent generic audience to be entertained or instructed but sets out to forge a specific public by means of an aesthetic interaction.

Hilde Hein, Thinking Museums Differently

The foghorns of San Francisco have become more public art than necessary navigational technology. Public outcry and controversy when the foghorn sounds change (usually due to technological advancements) is well documented through newspaper articles and letters to the editor. A public is attached to their sound, a public shares the experience of their sound, and a public lives with their sound. While the sound of the foghorns is ethereal and formless, the sound of the foghorns has as much of a place in the public imagination as the city’s public sculpture and built architecture. As Hilde Hein describes in Thinking Museums Differently, the sounds of the foghorns forge a specific public by means of an aesthetic interaction.

San Francisco Foghorns, Outer Richmond, August 29, 2007
San Francisco Foghorns, Outer Richmond, September 5, 2007
San Francisco Foghorns, Outer Richmond, September 27, 2007
Two-Tone Foghorn, from the archive of Colin MacKenzie.
Believed to be the original foghorn sound of Lightship LV 605.
Recorded c. 1985

Two Public Controversies


“San Francisco without foghorns? No way. That would be like Chicago without wind, or New York without the Statue of Liberty.”

Omaha World Herald, Nebraska, December 12 1992

“The mournful bellow of the foghorn, as much a part of San Francisco lore as cable cars and sourdough bread, faded into history yesterday as Coast Guard technicians unceremoniously replaced the last of the signals that warned mariners of the rocky cliffs of Alcatraz. In it’s place they installed a gizmo that produces a high pitched electronic beep that is about as romantic as a telephone dial tone. The switch may be enough to make Jack London spin in his grave, but such is the price of progress. foghorns are long on ambience and short on usefulness in a high-tech world, Coast Guard navigators said.”

San Francisco Chronicle, November 3, 1992

“I for one, thank God that those annoying, incessant foghorns are soon to be gone forever. When will society realize that noise pollution is every bit as harmful as any other kind of pollution? I’ve hated them ever since I moved here 16 years ago. They remind me of my days back on the farm: that’s exactly what a cow sounds like when giving birth. A more ghastly sound I cannot imagine.”

San Francisco Chronicle Nov 16, 1992

“Beep Beep, go the newfangled fog warning gadgets the Coast Guard installed on San Francisco Bay. Nuts, say traditionalists who want a return to the old foghorns that moaned through the mist.”

Associated Press. Las Vegas Review – Journal. Las Vegas, Nev.: Nov 13, 1992

1913 – 1915

“… Petitions are being daily received from San Francisco by Kahn which state that the weird shrieks of the siren still make night hideous for miles around the island, and there has been no indication of throttling the monster.”

San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 1913

“The trouble with the North Beach people is that they submit too readily to the imposition of the Bureau of Lighthouses. Those who are interested in the welfare of those who go to the sea in ships and those who are sick and suffering ashore, let them make the loudest and most forcible kind of protest against the unnecessary howling sirens, which are destroying people and property afloat and ashore.”

North Beach Mariner
San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 1915