- Historic Sites
Locomotive whistles had a language all their own
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
An unnamed Macon, Dublin & Savannah engineer is said to have been so handy with the whistle that he could call out the names of the stations for the conductor. Others could make their whistles beat drums, imitate bugle calls, or laugh.
Perhaps Gus Manning was the best laugher. Once his merry whistle, echoing through the mountains, got him into trouble. He didn’t know that the private car of “Little John” Thomas, general manager of his road, the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, was waiting for Gus’s train. Coming down the mountain, Gus went into a fit of laughter, bellowing and whooping, that lasted all the way into town. Thomas reminded him, in language as hot as Gus’s whistle, that steam was to be used for power, not entertainment.
Little John had economic justification for the rebuke. A Southern Pacific economist found that each blast of a whistle used up two thirds of a cent’s worth of fuel, and that the piper’s annual bill on one 265-mile segment of the system came to $15,330.
It was the economists who brought an end to the musical era of railroading. Diesel locomotives replaced steam because they are cheaper and easier to operate. Since there was no steam for whistle blowing, the railroads mounted air horns on the new engines. The public disliked them intensely: they could be heard farther than a steam whistle, but the sound was loud and blasting, lacking either nuance or charm.
One Beatrice E. Streb, of Canton, Ohio, summed up the complaints, and in angry letters to the Association of American Railroads said the air horns were “unreasonable, intolerable, unbearable … nerve shattering, sleep—and health-robbing … harsh, powerful and terrifying.” In forty-four years of living near railroad tracks, she continued, the steam whistles had never disturbed her. In the two years since diesel horns had been installed, she had never had a full night’s sleep.
About the only admirers of these air horns were bull moose, to whom, apparently, the blast sounded like the mating call of the female. Sometimes when an engineer in the Canadian woods tooted his horn, one of these great creatures would come bounding out on the tracks with love-light in his eyes. Occasionally a disappointed bull would charge the interloper, with disastrous results to himself and considerable wear and tear on the locomotive.
Modern research has produced a remedy for both the angry cries of the public and the amorous anguish of the moose. Robert E. Swanson, chief inspector of railways in the province of British Columbia, first used recordings to analyze the sound of the steam whistle. These recordings were fed into an oscilloscope, which showed that the note of the whistle was made up of a series of fundamental notes comprising a musical chord. He then recorded the sounds of various air horns to see if a combination of them would produce the characteristic sound of a steam whistle. After considerable research, he found that when six horns with proper fundamentals and harmonics were combined, their sounds would blend and level out into something very like a steam whistle. Later, five—and three-horn units were perfected.
Charles M. Kimball, safety director of the Southern Railway, took a different approach. He experimented with air horns of seven different tones. Assisting him was Lieutenant Charles Renter, former director of the United States Navy Band. For three days Kimball tooted and Benter listened at distances from one hundred feet to a mile. Finally a combination of five horns was picked for the Southern’s passenger and fast-freight trains and a three-horn looter for switch engines and local freights.
Once again such railroads as remain have whistles that produce “music.” The present-day “air-chime” railroad horn gives out a note that is a blend of C-sharp, E, G, and A at different frequencies—a soothing A-minor seventh chord. It may not arouse the “panther from its lair, the birds from their nests in fright” and “carry joy to anxious hearts,” as a local poet wrote of the first locomotive whistle heard at Fort Worth, Texas, in 1876. It may not allow an engineer to play his favorite tunes or call out across the valley to his ladylove. But the air chime is still useful to the engineer in talking to his coworkers, and it still is an authentic crv of the iron horse.