Mechanical Mysteries

Photo by Joe Reifer

One mystery solved (banana trees), two more added to the list: a strange tram and a pulley device. The trolley pictured above might seem perfectly normal in a park or in front of a historical museum. But no — this very short tram is in someone’s front yard in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood. Grocery transport system? Part of a railfan’s collection? Fun for the children? Hard to say.

Across town, not far from University and San Pablo, is a strange weight/pulley system attached to the side of an apartment building. The weight (at least that’s what I think this is) is just hanging from the cord attached to the balcony at the next level up. I have seen all sorts of laundry lines, dumbwaiters, fire escape systems, etc., but I could not immediately see the purpose of this object. Perhaps something is missing from the system. Any clues about this device would be greatly appreciated!



  1. Can’t speak for the tramway but I’m pretty sure the weight is a counter-weight to the fire escape on that building. I was trying to google you a picture of another one (actually, there’s a slightly different counterweight fire escape on Flickr) and found this interesting transcript of an appeal to SF Building Codes based on feng shui!

    “The appellant (represents 391 Sutter Street) seeks approval for a telescopic fire escape ladder as a required means of egress. Under Section 1029.7 of the San Francisco Building Code, fire escape ladder that serves as a means of egress shall be either counter-balanced or fixed type. The reason for this appeal is feng shui, an eastern cultural tradition which identifies good and bad placement of the building and its accessories. The appellant contend that the location of the fire escape is in relation to a sign which was bad because of feng shui. During the course of testimony, the appellant revised their proposal by modifying the existing counter-balanced fire escape and seeking approval to add an additional poster or sign to the inclined stair and the horizontal member.”

  2. The reason to have a counterweight on a fire escape, by the way, is so the ladder is available to help people who need to escape, but when someone is not on it, it retracts so that burglars don’t have an easy way in.

  3. Spike said

    I too am thinking the counterweight is for the fire escape.

    The wee tramway is a funicular. We got ’em here as well up on the ridgesides. Some of them are just open platforms with a rail around them and some are little glass cages to protect the occupant against the weather. They are nifty.

  4. Koshka said

    The counterbalance does double duty. It also allows the fire escape ladder to lower itself (with the weight of a person on it) slowly enough to be safe. Without it, extra weight on the ladder would just cause it to crash into the ground.
    There used to be a funicular, may still even be there, from the street level heading up the slope into the trees. could be seen when heading south, up Tunnel Rd. This always fascinated me.
    I haven’t lived in Berkeley for decades, but I recognize so many places, I love to read your blog.

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