I actually gasped at seeing the enhanced image – I had no idea the technology had advanced so far.

Over the years I’ve dabbled with applying colorization and other image processing effects to old pictures. Anyone interested in history or genealogy has likely done the same; probably all photo editing apps have at least a few enhancement tools built-in, and some of the more powerful online versions use AI to guess at the contents of the image for automatically adding color to black and white photos.

Results were rarely satisfying. Colorized images looked washed-out and the color choices could be laughably wrong. And because the underlying software was developed using modern photographs taken in color, processed black and white images might even lose quality – old portraits often have a shallow depth of field, for example, and apps may “fix” that by sharpening up the background.

Then on a whim, I recently took a photo from a 1920 Press Democrat and uploaded it to an AI website. I didn’t expect much improvement; my experience was that the software would probably despeckle the picture but not materially improve it. Still, I wanted the best possible image since the woman was key to the article I was researching.

To repeat myself: I actually gasped.

LEFT: Original photo from the Press Democrat, June 30, 1920. RIGHT: Hotpot enhanced image (see article).
LEFT: Original photo from the Press Democrat, June 30, 1920. RIGHT: Hotpot enhanced image (see article).

There was so much signal noise in the PD original it was difficult to read the woman’s expression; was she glaring angrily at the photographer? Did she look tired, or even sick? But with one click of the mouse, out of that hazy static emerged a clear and sharply-focused image of a woman’s face – with eyelashes, even! (This is the same woman shown in the graphic above the title.)

I took that portrait and ran it through a different AI-based program for colorization. The result was acceptable, but now she had the pale, sepia skin tone often seen in colorized photos.

Curious if colors in the photo could be improved further, I opened it in a graphics editor. Using just two menu options, I was able to give her a suitably realistic complexion. 1 Even though the portrait was still far from perfect, you could almost imagine it was a selfie made today – as long as you don’t squint too closely.

LEFT: Hotpot enhanced image colorized by Palette. RIGHT: The colorized version further enhanced using GIMP (see footnote 1).
LEFT: Hotpot enhanced image colorized by Palette. RIGHT: The colorized version further enhanced using GIMP (see footnote 1).


To test colorization, my criteria was that the apps had to be available to everyone. This meant that they had to be on the internet, free to use, and work automatically without technical knowledge or experience.

Except as noted, all images in this article were generated using Hotpot to first sharpen and improve the black and white photo, followed by applying the “Fix Face” enhancer if the image was a portrait. Colorization was done using Palette which offers a variety of filters which can be applied to the image. Both Hotpot and Palette require payment for processing larger images.

Other colorization apps tested include:
Hotpot (Colorize)

The entire process took less than ten minutes, and most of that was spent experimenting with menu options in the editor. All of the tools were free. Anyone can do this.

Automatic colorization is really quite a breakthrough, particularly when you consider it combines two remarkable achievements that were both considered futuristic stuff just a few years ago.

The first step is object recognition – how the computer recognizes without any prompting from the user that the image is the face of a woman, as opposed to the picture of a truck, a cat, or something else. It wasn’t until 2001 before anyone demonstrated that could be done in real time.

Gentle Reader should recall from the previous article how AI chatbots were “trained” using text scraped from the internet. Image processing AI programs are also trained on datasets, such as Stanford’s ImageNet which now contains over fourteen million images organized by descriptions.2 That enabled a giant leap forward in being able to correctly identify various parts of an image as well as building a library of color information about the objects.

Although all colorizing AI apps start by tapping into the same basic training about what’s in the image, what they do with that data can produce widely different results, although all default to very conservative color choices. The differences lie in how much – and how well – the colors can be tweaked to produce a result pleasing to your eye.

(RIGHT: Same location today)

In the first colorized image below the Img2Go app recognized there was lots of foliage, which the AI decided is always the exact same shade of green, no matter what kind of tree. The street and sidewalk are likewise greenish. (Another app lightly tinted both the sky and street blue.) As a final gripe, Img2Go super-sharpened the entire image without asking.

Colors were far more realistic in the lower image, particularly the palm trees. The sidewalk and (unpaved) street look right and although the sky is light overcast, it’s not so dark as to make the shadows look out of place. But despite those improvements, it’s still easy to see this photo has been colorized.

The present corner of Mendocino Avenue and 7th Street looking north towards College Avenue, c. 1905. (Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)
The present corner of Mendocino Avenue and 7th Street looking north towards College Avenue, c. 1905. (Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)
Colorized image by Img2Go
Colorized image by Img2Go
Colorized image by Palette
Colorized image by Palette

The sad truth is that no matter what is done, these images will likely always look colorized. Future advances in AI will most likely make better color choices, but there are limits because of issues with the quality of the original photograph itself.

Most black and white photos taken before circa 1930 used film that pushed contrast higher than a human eye would see; it was also not very sensitive to red light and over sensitive to blue (this article explains more). As a result, what was blue in real life appears lighter in a vintage black and white photo while red areas look much darker, sometimes appearing almost black. So when looking at a picture taken during the “Golden Age of Photography,” keep in mind it’s actually quite distorted and information has been irretrievably lost. Ideally some of this info could be provided in object descriptors, such as “Photographed 1921 using Kodak Verichrome (orthochromatic).” Ha, ha, no.

Making matters worse, the current crop of AI colorization apps train using modern photos. Pictures are desaturated and then the image generator tries to predict the correct colors, testing accuracy by comparing them to what’s found in the original (here’s an article with examples). Needless to say, a modern photo with its colors removed still looks like a modern photo because it keeps all the same tones. As I understand it, this is a reason why colorized vintage images often look brownish and washed-out – the color model is simply wrong. It’s like trying to translate a novel written in Spanish by using an Italian dictionary; the surprise is the trick can work as well as it does.

Yet it seems to me the people building these apps don’t understand users want to colorize OLD photos, and not, you know, re-colorize a color picture they just took with their iPhone. All of the colorizing apps I’ve tested using their automatic option performed no better than fair on vintage images. All, that is, except for one: Palette.

Palette is far from perfect and like all the other apps it has bugs, particularly sometimes not coloring within the lines. It offers twenty preset filters which can be applied to an image; some are “meh” like its competitors and some may be flawed – but often there are two or three that are gasp-worthy.

Developer Emil Wallner seems to have an understanding of vintage film – both color and black and white – that others lack. The results often have warmer tones and bolder colors, both which can look more historically accurate. Palette also looks at small gradations in the black and white image to offer dramatic color choices.

Below is an auto decorated for the 1910 Rose Carnival (more details). Other colorizers painted the floral decoration completely green – as did the default Palette filter. But in the original image the flowers over the hood and fender are slightly lighter. Per the old film being more sensitive to blue, Palette painted them that color. This surely must be a bug, right? Roses ain’t blue! Yet it turns out Palette’s color choice isn’t bad at all, because those aren’t roses, or even actual flowers. They’re fakes made out of colored paper. We know that because of an item in the Press Democrat from two years earlier, where the Floats Committee declared parade entries could no longer combine artificial floribunda with the real thing. Since the headlights and other parts of the auto are clearly paper, the rest of the decorations must be as well.

1910 image colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Rockwell family archives)
1910 image colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Rockwell family archives)

The next image is from around 1915 and shows a woman cuddling her kitty on the front steps – a poignant snapshot that has long been a personal favorite. I’m guessing the year to be c. 1915 based on the size of the Yucca, which was probably planted after the house was built in 1910 (the home is still there).

This is a deceptively difficult image to get right. All of the AI colorizers (including Palette’s “base” version) barely apply any tint at all, rendering it in such pale browns I sometimes struggled to see any color. But again, Palette found small measurable differences in the gray levels that suggest the front of the house had five shades. As with the “blue roses,” we can’t know if Palette’s colors are what actually appeared, but they are historically appropriate. This image also demonstrates Palette’s bug of not always identifying object borders correctly – look at the color shift on the window frames.

Circa 1915 image enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)
Circa 1915 image enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)

Some images defy colorization, at least using any of the AI-based apps currently available. This rare 1890 photo of Santa Rosa House, the famous old hotel at the corner of First and Main, is only partially colorized, with many people left in black and white. Palette performed marginally better than others, but this is a common problem with all AI colorizers when there’s not enough data to recognize an object. To be useable this photograph would need to be rescanned at a much higher resolution and have additional preprocessing enhancements. The horses look good, though.

1890 image enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
1890 image enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The final image is a 1885 portrait of Julio Carrillo. Palette did its usual fine job with color but like the portrait of the young woman discussed at the top, the real improvement is Hotpot’s “Fix Face” option, which adds dimension to his skin and beard.

But the garbled image of the woman was significantly improved while the overall quality of Julio’s portrait was not. In the original his eyes look more thoughtful; Hotpot very slightly lowered his eyelids, which is only apparent when you do a blink test.

1885 original image and a version enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
1885 original image and a version enhanced by Hotpot then colorized by Palette. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

So here’s the $64,000 Question: Should we be colorizing at all?

The “pro” side falls back to the same few arguments: People today expect color; photographers were hand-coloring back in the 19th century and no one objected; colorization can bring out hidden details. And let’s face it, being able to colorize a picture with the click of a mouse or tap on a screen is just pretty damn cool.

The “con” side begins by pointing out the apps are still doing a lot of guesswork. Yes, Palette has an remarkable ability to mimic old film and apply historically accurate colors, but it has no way of knowing what some of the original colors were – on the auto flowers, yellow would have been as good a choice as blue. Why is the woman’s hair a different color than her eyebrows? And although her forehead did not appear strikingly darker in the poor quality newspaper original, Hotpot turned it into a change of skin tone (or lighting?) which was further exaggerated by Palette. It feels like the same issues I raised with AI chatbots, which too often answer basic history questions partially or completely wrong. The technology may work satisfactorily 90% of the time, but when – and if – we will clear the hurdle of that last ten percent always seems a few years away.

And then there’s the briar patch of ethical issues, both because of the tech and those who use it. There’s been much discussion in articles and online forums about skin color automatically being lightened, and whether or not this is because the majority of faces in those mammoth image datasets are Caucasian. There are also examples of AI colorizers darkening the skin of Black people so much that facial features are nearly lost.

Colorization always has been somewhat controversial (here’s an article mostly about pre-AI objections) but there was an uproar in 2021 after an artist altered photos of Cambodian genocide victims, sometimes adding smiles to their mugshots as well as colorizing them. In the wake of that incident a “Colorizer’s Code of Conduct” was written, which I encourage everyone who’s planning to try AI colorization to read. It’s short and hits all the important points.

Even if you’re simply colorizing your grandparent’s wedding portrait to post on FaceBook, it’s still important to acknowledge the image has been significantly altered and an original black and white version exists – that thread of history must be unbroken. And who knows? Perhaps someday a member of your family will want to re-colorize it when we have AI apps that work more reliably.


1 The final image enhancement was done using GIMP, a free Photoshop-like app that will run on all desktop computers. Three options from the “Colors” menu were used:
Auto > Color Enhance (this maximizes saturation)
Hue-Saturation reduces max saturation (-40)
Brightness-Contrast, adjusts brightness (+75) and contrast (-10)

2 ImageNet initially received a huge boost in the number of images and descriptors in its dataset by incorporating data from Flickr, one of the earliest photo social media sites that allowed users to add tags describing the picture. Descriptions are also being crowdsourced, which has furthered the problems of troublemakers adding malicious tags, including racist slurs and disinformation to the descriptors.

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Run! Hide! The AIs are coming for you! They’re going to take away your job and otherwise completely screw up your life! Or maybe there’s a single mega-AI like Skynet in the Terminator movies which will kill us all! Elon Musk could be secretly assembling murder robots at Tesla factories right now and frankly, I would not put it past him. Why, just the other day he…oh, never mind.

Making apocalyptic predictions about AI has become a popular new subgenre for the egghead class. Thomas L. Friedman, who preens as A Really Big Thinker over on the New York Times’ editorial pages, was given a simple dog-and-pony demo of a chatbot and after a sleepless night wrote a March 21, 2023 column saying he foresees it becoming as powerful and dangerous as nuclear energy. “We are going to need to develop what I call ‘complex adaptive coalitions’ …to define how we get the best and cushion the worst of A.I.” Pundits who want to appear extra savvy usually toss in an ominous warning that doomsday is only a few years away – or if we’re really unlucky, just a few months. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Look, I get it; recent advances in AI can seem super-scary, and it doesn’t help when even an OpenAI co-founder admits “we are messing around with something we don’t fully understand.” It seems safe to predict these technologies will impact our future in ways we can’t anticipate – though I doubt they will nudge us towards Utopia, which is the sort of thing AI developers actually like to say.

Chabots in particular are hyped as a boon to humankind because users can supposedly ask questions about anything and receive easy-to-understand answers in a wide variety of languages. A top concern about chatbots is they work too well – that students can use a ‘bot to effortlessly write homework assignments for them. And unless a teacher has reason to suspect the work was generated by a computer, the student might expect to get a very good grade. After all, any report or essay generated by the computer will be clearly written and contain true, verifiable facts…right? Uh, maybe. There’s that sticky little problem of hallucinations.

A chatbot will sometimes make stuff up – Wikipedia has a good page on this “hallucination” phenomenon. Not only will it tell you a lie, but when asked followup questions the ‘bot will double-down and insist its answers were accurate, despite absolute proof it was dead wrong. Even more worrisome, researchers do not understand why this happens (see quote above, per “we are messing around”).


To test how well a chatbot would handle questions related to Santa Rosa history, my criteria was that the program had to be available to everyone. This meant that it had to be on the internet, free to use, and not require any special software be installed.

Currently (March, 2023) the only general chatbot that qualifies is ChatGPT version 3.5. An updated release, GPT-4, is available from developer OpenAI and they claim it is “40% more likely to produce factual responses,” but requires a $20 monthly subscription to ChatGPT Plus. A version of GPT-4 is integrated into the free Microsoft Edge web browser which has to be first downloaded and installed, although it will not work on all computers.

Bing is Microsoft’s search engine. It is part of the Edge browser but also available as a regular web site, although without GPT-4’s ability to chat. That standalone version of Bing does, however, utilize GPT-4 analytic and natural language functionality.

Since the topic here is history, I want to be very clear this is not an issue of interpretation – that a chatbot answer was considered incorrect because it stated the Civil War was about state’s rights or that John Quincy Adams was a better president than his father. Nor does it suggest the ‘bot was simply confused and mixed us up with (say) the city of Santa Rosa in the Philippines. No, a chatbot hallucination means the program invented people, places or things that never existed, or that it ignored facts which have been proven true. And as I was amazed to discover, it happens a lot.

To evaluate the quality of the chatGPT ‘bot, I submitted a dozen questions discussed below. None of them were intended to be tricky; they were the sort of questions I imagine might appear on a middle school or high school test after the class spent a unit learning about local history. (I did, however, throw in one where the topic was inferred.) ChatGPT answered three accurately; the rest were all/partially wrong or the question was skipped. One answer was a complete hallucination. If a teacher gave the chatbot a D+ grade I would consider her to be generous.

I presented the same questions to Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which uses GPT-4. As explained in the sidebar, Bing doesn’t have a chat function to ask followup questions unless you’re using Microsoft’s web browser, but it likewise usually replies in natural language. The Bing dataset is also much, much larger than the one used by ChatGPT, which is probably why this test shows Bing answers are frequently more accurate than ChatGPT – although it can still spit out some real clinkers.*

Both ChatGPT and Bing share a weakness that will prevent either from being taken too seriously for the foreseeable future – namely, they do not understand there are objective facts.

You can ask the same program the same question later and get a completely different reply that may contradict the previous one. Or, you can immediately make a slight change to the wording of your question and similarly receive an opposite answer. These problems are best shown below in the question about the 1906 earthquake, where ChatGPT also spins out of control with multiple hallucinations.

In sum, Bing is slightly better because it provides links to websites it tapped to formulate a reply; the user can review that material to decide whether the information is trustworthy. ChatGPT provides no sources. Regardless, I don’t want to use a computer program that variously claims 2+2 equals 3, 4, or 5, and leaves it up to me to figure it out.

Anyway, on to the test questions (these answers were shown between March 17-24, 2023):

WHERE DID THE NAME “SONOMA” COME FROM?   The correct answer should be, “no one knows for sure.”


The ChatGPT answer has multiple errors: No Europeans entered the Sonoma Valley before 1810 and the first time “Valley of the Moon” appeared anywhere was in an 1850 speech by M. G. Vallejo, who claimed it was “an Indian word.” The Spanish did not call it the “Valley of the Seven Moons;” that phrase came from a popular state history written in 1911, “California, Its History and Romance.” References to a Coast Miwok “Sonomi” tribelet can be found as far back as 1815 Mission Dolores baptismal records. A priest also made a diary entry in 1823 about visiting “a place called Sonoma by the Indians.”

The Bing answer was that Sonoma is “…variously thought to mean ‘valley of the moon’, ‘many moons’, or to derive from tso (the earth) and noma (village).” This comes from the Wikipedia entry, which provides only part of the earth-village theory. The original source was a 1908 paper, where the author went on to say the Wappo people a little farther to the east used -tsonoma as a place name suffix, much like today we use -town and -ville or similar.

(Another version about the name origin was told by General Vallejo’s son, Platon, as quoted in a 1946 paper. He was told it was named after a Suisun leader, in the same manner that Solano was named after Chief Solano. The man was supposed to have a large nose and given the name “Sono,” which Platon said was the word for nose in the Suisun dialect. Therefore the name really meant “Sono’s Valley.” Because “sano” is their word for moon, his father misunderstood and thought the Suisun were calling it “Moon Valley.”)

WHAT DID FRED WISEMAN TAKE TO SANTA ROSA?   The correct answer is mail, as this was the first airmail flight. ChatGPT’s answer deserves an F: “I’m not aware of Fred Wiseman taking anything specific to Santa Rosa. He is a documentary filmmaker and has made films on various subjects, but I do not have any information about him taking something to Santa Rosa.”

Bing’s answer deserves an A: “Fred Wiseman took off on February 17, 1911 with a handful of mail, flying from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California. He flew about 100 feet off the ground at a maximum speed of 70 mph. He carried letters from Petaluma’s mayor and town leaders and copies of the local newspaper.”

WHERE DID LUTHER BURBANK LIVE?   Acceptable answers might be, “Tupper Street” (the now-demolished home he built in 1906), “Santa Rosa Avenue,” (the farmhouse at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens) or in a pinch, simply “Santa Rosa.” ChatGPT gets an A for “He lived most of his life in California, where he established his famous experimental gardens in Santa Rosa.”

Bing gets a rare F for answering simply “Lancaster, Massachusetts”, which was where Burbank was born. A snippet from a web site farther down the search results page mentions he died in Santa Rosa.

WHERE WAS THE EMPIRE BUILDING IN SANTA ROSA CA?   Built in 1908 and remodeled in 2019 as “Hotel E,” the Empire Building is the top landmark in Santa Rosa’s downtown core. ChatGPT, however, doesn’t have a clue as to what it is: “I’m sorry, but I’m not entirely sure what you are referring to when you say “the empire building” in Santa Rosa, CA.”

Bing replied correctly: “Old Courthouse Square.”

WHICH SIDE DID SANTA ROSA CA SUPPORT DURING THE CIVIL WAR?   Santa Rosa (in)famously backed the Confederacy during the war and afterwards even held a fundraiser for the ex-slave states. Both ChatGPT and Bing failed this question. ChatGPT gave a weaselly reply that “Santa Rosa, CA did not exist as a city during the American Civil War,” as it was not incorporated until 1868. Bing gave no answer at all, providing instead standard search engine results related to California during the Civil War.
HOW MANY PEOPLE DIED IN THE 1906 SANTA ROSA EARTHQUAKE?   There was no final count, but exactly 82 are certain to have died in Santa Rosa, as I explained on my “earthquake by the numbers” webpage. There were probably more than that, but any higher estimates are speculation.

ChatGPT responded with a variety of misinformation, some of it hallucinations. In an early test it claimed “The Santa Rosa earthquake of 1906 had a magnitude of 6.3” although no source can be found with that number; it has been long agreed it was probably M7.8, close to San Francisco’s magnitude. The real shocker was the ‘bot claimed there were no deaths:


In a later test, ChatGPT changed its mind and stated there were exactly seven deaths. Since that was such an oddly specific detail, I asked a followup question as to who they were. As other researchers have found, when confronted with a lie the program either makes up a source or, as in this case, tells you to go fish:


Bing’s first response provided a snippet from my “by the numbers” article with the correct answer of 82. But when I slightly rephrased the question as, “HOW BAD WAS THE 1906 SANTA ROSA EARTHQUAKE?” Bing quoted from an error-ridden 2016 Press Democrat summary: “On April 18, 1906, a devastating earthquake rattled the Bay Area. Santa Rosa was among the hardest-hit towns; more than 100 people were killed in a community of roughly 8,700. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble, and the city struggled for years to rebuild.” Aside from getting the number of fatalities wrong, my article above explains the population was much smaller, no neighborhoods were destroyed and the city rebounded quickly, with most of the downtown commercial district operating again within four days, many at same locations.

WHY DID THEY TEAR DOWN THE LIBRARY IN SANTA ROSA CA?   This is the “inferred” question, which required the ‘bot to poke around the internet seeking information on a library here being “torn down.” The correct answer was that the 1904 building was extremely unsafe and could not be repaired.

ChatGPT’s answer revealed another of its weaknesses: The cutoff for feeding it new data ended in September, 2021, so it can’t prowl the internet for further information. If it hadn’t found the subject matter by the end of its training period, the program just gives up: “As far as my knowledge cutoff of 2021-09, the Central Branch of the Sonoma County Library, located in Santa Rosa, CA, was not torn down.”

Bing offered a snippet from my article, “WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER,” but failed to understand its context: “In those forums two reasons are usually given for why it was torn down. Its unreinforced masonry was a huge danger (a topic discussed below) and/or it was another victim of Santa Rosa’s maniac efforts in the 1960s to destroy much of its own history, when the downtown area was declared chock-full of urban blight that must be bulldozed ASAP.” This was a continuation from the previous paragraph; the “forums” mentioned were FaceBook nostalgia groups. The snippet leaves the false impression that it’s possible the building was demolished because of urban renewal programs, which is not true.

WAS THERE A LYNCHING IN SANTA ROSA CA?   The correct answer is yes, three men were lynched at the Rural Cemetery in 1920 for the murder of county sheriff Jim Petray. A mob estimated at 2,000 had attacked the jail a few days earlier but authorities were able to maintain order.

The answer from ChatGPT was bizarre. Yes, a man named Jesse Washington was lynched, but it happened in Waco, Texas in 1916. The victim he supposedly killed was Lucy Fryer. There was no woman named Bertha Gudde involved – nor can I find anyone with that name involved in any newsworthy event.


Bing provided a link and snippet from my article, “VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM” which was part of the series I wrote on the lynchings.

WHO WAS MARK McDONALD IN SANTA ROSA CA?   As with the library question, ChatGPT hadn’t found any info on him before the 2021 cutoff so it can’t answer. Still, I wish the natural language generator could reply in a less snitty tone that made it seem as if I had let the ‘bot down: “I’m sorry, but as an AI language model, I do not have access to information about every individual in Santa Rosa, CA or their personal details…If you can provide me with more context or details about this person, I may be able to assist you better.”

Bing provided an accurate summary, although it would have been better if it mentioned he came to Santa Rosa in 1879: “Colonel Mark L. McDonald was born in Kentucky but settled in California during the 1850s. He made his money in road construction, and later in property development in Santa Rosa.”

WHO WAS JULIO CARRILLO OF SANTA ROSA CA?   ChatGPT again came back with nothing: “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t find any information about a specific person named Julio Carrillo from Santa Rosa, CA.”

Bing’s answer was concise, but as with McDonald, dodged any direct tie-in with his involvement in Santa Rosa: “Julio was the youngest of Dona Maria Carrillo’s five sons. He was 12 years old when his widowed mother came north from San Diego in 1837.”

WHY IS ANNADEL STATE PARK NAMED THAT?   This is my favorite ChatGPT reply because it is 100% hallucination:


Bing used a snippet from a 2015 article written by Arthur Dawson: “Annadel State Park is named for Susana ‘Annie’ Hutchinson, whose family owned the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The name, a contraction of ‘Annie’s Dell,’ was in use by the 1880s, when it was given to a railway station on their property (a ‘dell’ is a small, wooded valley).”

WHAT IS THE AVERAGE ANNUAL RAINFALL FOR SANTA ROSA CA?   ChatGPT finally gave a completely correct answer: “The average annual rainfall for Santa Rosa, California is approximately 32 inches (81.3 cm). This is based on long-term data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Santa Rosa weather station.”

Bing wasn’t even close: “The average amount of annual precipitation is: 41.8 inches.” The webpage it cites correctly states the average amount of annual precipitation is: 32.2 inches, and nowhere on the page is 41.8 inches mentioned.


* There’s a disturbing amount of gee-whiz journalism about ChatGPT being a Herculean accomplishment in computing, such as a BBC article stating it was trained using “a whopping 570GB of data obtained from books, webtexts, Wikipedia, articles and other pieces of writing on the internet.” That’s actually a very small dataset for what ChatGPT was able to accomplish; most desktop computers could easily store 570 gigabytes on an internal hard drive without difficulty. By contrast, the amount of text data on Internet Archive is several magnitudes higher than that, so the “whopping” dataset incorporated into ChatGPT tapped less than 1/10,000th of the information currently available from that repository alone.

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Millenia from now, historians will puzzle over our love affair with phones. Museums will have exhibits where our distant descendants can handle one of the ancient devices (or more likely, a recreation) so they can marvel that such poor quality sound was once acceptable, and how their ancestors even used the things to send text messages, although the device wasn’t designed for it.

Welcome to 1885.

This is the story of how the telephone came to Sonoma county. It happened much earlier than you might expect – before electric lights (and only shortly after gas lighting was available in the larger towns), before Santa Rosa had a sewer system and even before Petaluma hatched its first Leghorn chicken.

It’s not necessary here to rehash who invented it and when; for practical purposes it emerged when Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Almost immediately, it became America’s first must-have gadget.

As few people back then actually knew what it was like to use a phone (spoiler alert: Faint and muffled sound over crackly connections), wild and silly claims were made about how it was about to transform the world. People who were nearly deaf would be able to understand a whisper. The 1876 New York Times lamented this was the end of the Republic because we would soon all stay at home or in “telephone rooms” listening to live music or great sermons. The Santa Rosa paper griped that a major 1878 San Francisco music festival (see ad at right) would be transmitted by “telephonic connection” to Sacramento but not available for our community to enjoy.

(Lest we feel too smug about the old-timers being snookered with unrealistic expectations, anyone over thirty years might remember the TV commercials promoting the early hype about the internet in 1994 and 1995. According to AT&T, every aspect of our lives would be enslaved to the corporation, using AT&T video pay phones and sending each other notes handwritten on AT&T tablets. The old telecom MCI presented its vision of the future which was more Zen, as a little girl scampered around a beach, pausing only long enough to recite a few garbled remarks about “empowering technology.”)

Sonoma county first got its hands on a telephone in 1878, when the telegraph company commandeered the wire between Santa Rosa and Petaluma for a two-hour demo one Sunday night. Papers in both towns gave it a good review; the Sonoma Democrat remarked “conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard” and the Petaluma Courier said it “sounded as though it was but a short distance away.” Before the official start of the demonstration, however, apparently a wise guy in the Santa Rosa office got on the line (the Courier reporter described it as “a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover”) and passed on some juicy gossip. The telegraph company supervisor told him to ignore that as “telemischief,” which is a pretty good word that deserves to be revived today.

The earliest telephones in the county were more like intercoms connecting no more than a handful of receivers. First were probably the 1878 lines in Petaluma connecting the McNear’s store with their mill and family homes; the next year there was a network based at a Cloverdaie station reaching the Skaggs Springs resort and Geyserville. (That included a line to the tavern called “Fossville” where daredevil stagecoach driver Clark Foss would speak to Robert Louis Stevenson, the author struggling to use a telephone for the first time – see The Silverado Squatters.) And there was a wire across the west end of the Russian River, so the ferry could be summoned from the Duncans Mills hotel (“just how much unnecessary yelling – and swearing, too – this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast”).

During the early 1880s more of these customized telephones were installed in Santa Rosa and Petaluma (a man named Parshley apparently did most of the work) but it’s unclear if they were all connected together in a single in-town circuit. My guess is they certainly were, and they used a ring code to let someone know whether the call was intended for them. Nothing about this was mentioned in the papers, however.



FUTURE SHOCK:1907 (includes “How to Telephone”)


Newspapers in Santa Rosa and Petaluma also displayed a near-obsessive yearning for the thing we could not have: Reaching San Francisco and the world beyond. Probably every weekly issue of the Democrat had some reprinted item revolving around telephones. Sometimes it was an element in the serial novel unwinding chapter by chapter each week, but usually it was the catalyst for a funny item which ended up with someone mortified in embarrassment. A NY grocer couldn’t afford a telephone so he had a dummy made and pretended to take big orders to impress his customers – until he was caught faking a call from a hotel which no longer existed. A San Francisco dance hall promoter thought he was ordering racy posters from a printer but was connected by mistake to the matron of an exclusive girl’s school in Oakland. O, Victorian-era humor, thou art such polite gentle fun, teehee.

Sonoma county’s years in the telephonic wilderness ended in the summer of 1884, when a 7-line phone cable (!) was dropped across the Golden Gate. The Sunset Telephone Company signed up enough subscribers to bring the service through Marin to Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Guerneville and Sebastopol. Rates were never mentioned in the papers but it must have been quite expensive; there were few residential customers – although one of the early home subscribers was consummate tech nerd James Wyatt Oates.

But just as Santa Rosa cuddled up to the idea of talking to people far away, the Democrat announced that it was obsolete – in the very near future we would be typing text messages to each other. “Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages,” read a 1885 headline.



The article reprinted from the NY World explained, “It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper.” The reporter claimed, “forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.”

What was being described was an early teleprinter system, and unfortunately the paper did not mention the name of the inventor or company. If the device really worked as described it was far ahead of its time, as there would be nothing like this available commercially for over twenty years.

It may seem hard to imagine why such a device did not catch on; “its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it” should have brought it widespread appeal. Its Achilles’ heel, however, was the need to have a dedicated line between the teleprinters, and in that era almost every telephone customer was on a party line. Thus if you texted your sister in Pomona about your lumbago, teleprinters in a dozen or more offices or homes near her might also clatter to life. Because of this weakness, the optimistic 1885 article predicted tens of thousands of new telegraph offices would pop up all over the country to send and receive these texts.

But the telephone endured despite its limitations, and the very idea of it continued to fire imaginations. So exotic was the telephone that scores of paper startups called themselves the “telephone” – the closest to us were in Sausalito and Eureka, but there Daily Telephones and Evening Telephones all over the country. A Santa Rosa barber shop in 1885 even offered a free “Telephone bath” with every haircut; what that meant is a mystery, but on Facebook author Elissa DeCaro guessed it could have meant rinsing off with a handheld bathtub attachment. (The “New Orleans Rub” is also a puzzle, but probably was not naughty at all, sorry.)

A later version of the ad mentions, “A Telephone bath or a New Orleans Rub without extra charge. Hair tonic for sale warranted to cure dandruff and all skin diseases”


…Recently some very interesting experiments have been tried on the wires in communicating musical sounds. An instrument called the telephone has been invented, which transmits directly the pitch of a sound to a distant station so that, for instance, when an operator at one end of a wire sings or plays any tune on it it will be heard and distinguished plainly at the other…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1869

It is related that deaf persons, who have great difficulty in nearing ordinary speech, find that by applying the telephone close to the ear they can hear even a whisper with distinctness.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 27 1878

Telephone.—Preparations are making to place several cities in telephonic connection with San Francisco on the event of the grand concert to be given in that city in the near future, that other people may have the benefit of the music without the expense of a trip, in addition to the price of a ticket. Why not Santa Rosa be favored in a similar manner? If Sacramento can hear and enjoy the sweet sounds by means of the telephone, why not Santa Rosa?

– Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1878


The Telephone.

Yes, we have seen and heard it, and now propose to tell all about it…We were invited to take a seat by a table, on which was a box about the size of a candle box with a lot of loose wire and other things in it. We at once concluded that this must be the telephone, and having determined before we reached the office to act just as though we had been familiar with such instruments all our lives, we pounced into the chair, and placing our ear just over the loose wire above spoken of, were prepared to hear anything that might be passing. Pretty soon we heard a commotion among the wires and a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover. It said look out for news from Santa Rosa, and it came about as follows: Major Clark has quit swearing, taken out a license to preach, and will in a few days be married to one of the belles of Santa Rosa (We wanted to congratulate the Major, but the news kept coming.) Mr. Bridge Williams has become a ranting Democrat, and is giving Col. Byington and his former Republican friends particular thunder for their obstinacy in trying to bolster up a broken down party. (We thought, can dose dings be drue? [sic] But on the news came.)…

… Here Mr. Bayly chipped in, and asked us if we were asleep. We said, no but were receiving some wonderful news from Santa Rosa by the telephone. “Telemischief,” said he; “that is our waste box and we get no reliable news from that. Come this way, sir, and I will show you the America speaking telephone.” We found it to be a little oblong box about six inches in length by four in width and over an inch in thickness. This box having been connected with the wire the fun commenced. We were told to talk, and listen at the little bung hole at the side, in which was the vibrator. We confess to a little trepidation as we put the mysterious little box up to our ear, well remembering the the many times we had been deceived by finding in nice boxes ugly jumping jacks, and not forgetting how that old waste box played us earlier in the evening. However, we listened and heard distinctly what was said by parties in the Santa Rosa office. The music of the flute and the flute and piano together was beautiful, and sounded as though it was but a short distance away…

– Petaluma Courier, May 9 1878


The Telephone Wonder.

We are indebted to Mr. P. Drake, manager of the telegraph offices in San Francisco, and to Mr. Doychert, of the telegraph office in this city, for the courtesies extended which enabled us to be present and enjoy the pleasure of an exchange of social courtesies with parties in Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, by means of one of those most wonderful human inventions, the telephone. To what extent are we being carried by this power of mind over matter? From the time that Franklin flrst bottled the lightnings from the clouds, what wonderful, awe-inspiring inventions have been brought forth to reduce the lightnings to subjection and render them subservient to the will of man. Morse came with his telegraph, and improvement after improvement followed, until now it spans a continent with its wires, and enables us to annihilate time itself in the transmission of news along its wires through the unfathomed waters of the mighty deep from the eastern to the western, and from the western to the eastern shores of a great ocean. And now comes yet another wonder in the telephone, by which we are enabled to converse, not in character, or simply by sound, but by words actually spoken, which fall upon the ear with a distinctness that satisfies the doubts of the most skeptical.

Mr. Drake brought telephonic instruments to our city with him on Saturday evening, 4th inst., and a trial of their powers was made between the railroad depot and the telegraph office in this city, a distance of about a half mile, with but imperfect success. But Sunday evening communication was opened with Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, with the most perfect success. Conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard at either end, and duly applauded by the clapping of hands, which was listened to with delight on the part of those present. The Mocking Bird, played upon the flute by Mr. Felix Brown, of Santa Rosa, was distinctly heard, recognized and encored by those listening in Petaluma; and the playing of a flute and singing and whistling in Petaluma were distinctly heard and applauded in Santa Rosa. Mr. A. E. Shattuck on the piano, accompanied by Mr. Brown, on the flute, were distinctly heard in Petaluma, and requested to repeat time and time again. In order to test more fully the powers of the wonderful instrument, we were told to read a piece of poetry. In compliance we recited a few lines from that beautiful and affecting poem, “Mary had a Little Lamb,” etc., with a concluding, “How is that for high?” and were gracefully complimented with the response coming back distinctly, “Way up!” These tests were continued for full two hours, when good nights were spoken, and the wonderful machine was disconnected from the wires and all parties retired for the night. We hope in the near future to be able to be present at a test between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. If this wonderful machine will transmit words distinctly sixteen miles, why not at a distance of fifty miles; and if at a distance of fifty miles, why may we not annihilate space and have a direct talk with the Emperor of China relative to the speedy removal of his Celestial subjects from the confines of the golden State? The rushing, pushing, traveling American, has already a world-wide reputation as a talkist. What will be the result when he enters the field fully equipped with telephone and phonograph? (The fact is, we shall be able to talk the stone Sphinx into a perspiration and make him shake his head in wonderment.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 11 1878

…The telephone of which I spoke in my laat letter is now up, and has been in successful operation during the past week between here and Geyserville. This morning connection was made to Cloverdaie and and as there is a telepone from there to the Geysers, we are in speaking distance of those springs. Every word spoken at Geyserville or Cloverdaie is as distinctly heard in the office here as if the persona were in the same room carrying on a conversation.

– Sonoma Democrat letter from Skaggs Springs, July 19 1879

…Those of your readers who have to cross Russian River by the ferry, near its mouth, will be glad to learn that a very good telephone has been placed there. When they come to the river bank, a call, in a natural tone of voice, is instantly heard in and answered from the hotel opposite. Just how much unnecessary yelling—and swearing, too—this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast.

– Sonoma Democrat  letter from Russian River Ferry, April 24 1880

Van Alstine & Swanton, who have put up several of Parshley telephone lines in Petaluma, came up Friday, to put up a line to connect Ludwig’s business office with his lumber yard, but had to postpone the matter in consequence of bad weather. They will return as soon as it clears up, when an opportunity will be given all who wish, to avail themselves of this great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1883

Hello! San Francisco. — Mr. T. J. Gallagher, agent for the Sunset Telephone Company is in this city for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of establishing telephonic communication under the auspices of the company he represents. This company has just completed a circuit which includes Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, Vallejo, and all the adjacent town and villages with the metropolis, and they expect to connect Santa Rosa, with the same general system. Mr. Gallagher has met with great encouragement in Petaluma, and does not doubt that he will secure the requisite number of subscribers here to justify the company in establishing itself here. There is no doubt that the presence of a system of telephones, both here and in connection with San Francisco, would be a great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The sum of $400 has been raised to construct the telephone line between this city and Sebastopol. The estimated cost is $600.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The Telephone. — The right of way has been secured for the telephone line between here and San Francisco, and the wire will be placed between here and Petaluma in the course of a few weeks. The cable to extend from San Francisco to Point Tiburon is being manufactured. It is expected that by the time the cable is completed, the wire will be up from here to Point Tiburon, and it will only be a month or two until residents here can “hello” to friends and acquaintances in San Francisco or Petaluma.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 26 1884

Messrs. Lawrence and Delaney, of the Telephone Company, are in town, and report that companies of men are at work in three places on the line–one between this city and Petaluma, another between San Rafael and Petaluma, and the third between San Rafael and Point Tiburon. The line between here and Petaluma will be in working order in two weeks. When the line is completed, the cable will be ready and laid, from Point Tiburon to San Francisco. It will contain seven wires, and will be similar in all respects to the one which now connects San Francisco with Oakland.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1884

Hello, Petaluma! The wires for the telephone are being attached to the poles, which are all in position, and it is thought that we can talk with our neighbors this week.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 28 1884

A telephone message to the Democrat, dated Sacramento, January 20th, says: The Republican caucus met to-night and nominated Governor Stanford for United States Senator on the second ballot.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 24 1885
Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages Over a Telegraph Wire—Details. [New York World.]

A new application of electric science has been made here that promises to go far toward revolutionizing telegraphy and supplanting the telephone in popular favor. It is nothing less than the discovery of means by which anybody capable of manipulating an ordinary type-writing machine may, with equal ease, rapidity, and precision, send and receive messages over a telegraphic wire. Should this invention do all that is claimed for it, and, indeed, that it seems fully capable of, there seems to be no good reason why the places of expert Morse telegraphers may not be filled everywhere by girls, clerks, expressmen, station agents and other non-experts, so at once reducing greatly to the public the cost of telegraphy and increasing facilities by the establishment of at least 40,000 new telegraph offices throughout the country in places where they have not heretofore been. For reasons best known to the company controlling this most important invention its operations have until now been kept a secret. The office and operating rooms, have been carefully guarded against reporters and the men interested have been as closemouthed as if it had been a political mystery instead of a step in progressive science that they were concealing. However, the writer found means to be present at a series of exceedingly interesting tests of the practicability of the new system, which constituted an entirely private exhibition.

The distinguishing features of the new system, are the entirely novel transmitter and receiver employed. Those two instruments although put near together here upon a table, have between them about a hundred miles of ordinary telegraph wire coiled about the room, through which their connection is made. In point of fact the transmitter and the receiver are exactly alike, the same machine serving for either use as required. Its front is almost the same as the keyboard of a caligraph or typewriter, the letters of the alphabet and the numerals are in high relief. Behind this is a vertical column, around which blank paper is placed and by a simple mechanical device moved up line by line as desired. The paper almost touches the lettered face of the wheel. A small inking roller governed by a spring supplies color to the lettered wheel. Inside the column is a small hammer that strikes the paper against whatever letter may be directly before it and so prints it upon the surface of the paper. All that seems simple enough.

The mystery is below, in the intricate and delicate electrical attachments which variously graduated currents are led over the thirty-eight or forty wires from the keys to the printing apparatus, and at the same time to a connected instrument far away to record both simultaneously and with perfect accuracy on every key that is struck. The wire connecting the instrument is single, but those graduated currents not only pass along it without confusion, but even meet in opposite directions at the same time. This was fully demonstrated in the tests. The touching of a key instantly produced a letter upon the paper of both instruments, and letter after letter followed as rapidly as a skillful type-writer operator could touch the keys until many messages had been exchanged. It was observed that the wheels, when retrogression in the order of the alphabet was necessitated, whirled clear back to a fixed point each time, as the wheel of a “gold and stock indicator” instrument does, but it moved with much greater rapidity and so little affected transmission that forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.

One of the gentlemen connected with the new enterprise–one, by the way, of high standing as a practical electrician–said concerning the novel invention: “The distinctive advantages claimed by this system overall other telegraphic, telephonic and typewriting instruments are in its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it. Any person who can read can transmit and receive messages through it as correctly as could the most experienced expert Morse instrument. It is as rapid as it is accurate, and all messages by it being automatically printed, both at the point of transmission and that of reception, they can be received with safety and reliability in the absence as well as to the presence of the recipient. The recording of messages at both points precludes all questions of errors in transmission. It cannot be read by sound, and is consequently the only method for preserving privacy in electrical communication. It is at once a stock indicator, telephone, and type-printing telegraph. For railroad and express companies, bankers, brokers, marchants, and all commercial purposes—it being adjustable to any system of wire communication and capable of working with any number of tributaries—it is of inestimable value. It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper. There are no formidable complications in its construction, and it is regarded by expert electricians as a wonderful achievement.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885
New Telephone Line.

The work of constructing the telephone lines between this city and Sonoma via Glen Ellen will be begin in about thirty days. The enterprise was subscribed to liberally by the citizens of Sonoma and Glen Ellen.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1886


Hello, Eureka!

The Sunset Telephone Company is preparing to extend its line clear through from Santa Rosa to Eureka. The poles are heieg rapidly gotten out and the line will Iw* speedily completed. The connection with Eureka will greatly enlarge the telephone business at the Santa Rosa exchange, The Eureka station has 400 subscribers and all their San Francisco business will have to be handled through the Santa Rosa station, which manages all the territory north of Petaluma.

– Press Democrat,  April 23 1898


The New Telephone Directory

Telephone subscribers will today receive a new directory card and will find It very useful. The new directory gives the names and “numbers” of every subscriber, together with the names of the agents and’ the public stations in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. During the past year communication by telephone has been greatly increased in both counties, until now almost every place in both counties, in town and hamlet, or neither, there is a telephone station. The efficient manager of this district is J. J. Barricklo of this city. The past year has been a very busy one for him.

– Press Democrat, December 29 1900

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