You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.
George Bailey – It’s A Wonderful Life.
It seems quite odd these days to imagine inventing the steam engine but not having any means of signalling a train’s imminence. But when George Stephenson was developing his steam engines, back in 1814, his first engines travelled so slowly and made such a racket there was no real need for warnings.
But that soon changed, and all because of a man called William Huskisson, who entered history as the first casualty of the railway era. The man was a genuine VIP – a well known financier and Member of Parliament for several constituencies, including Liverpool. He was attending the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830 with a number of other bigwigs, including the Prime Minister, The Duke of Wellington.
The event was special because, although steam engines were established as a modern method of hauling coal, the innovations were coming thick and fast – and interest in these remarkable machines was peaking.
The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was a culmination of that.
George Stephenson’s amazing Rocket locomotive brought together several innovations to produce the most advanced locomotive of its day and was built specifically for the purpose – the first passenger carrying railway in the world. And pretty high tech it was too with seven locomotives in a showcase for the whole service, led of course by George Stephenson.
The party of dignitaries disembarked at one of the water stops along the way, and Huskisson took the moment to reconcile with the Duke, who he had fallen out with in Parliament a few years ago.
The man was sufficiently distracted that he saw the Rocket very late approaching on a second track. At the last minute he panicked, and tried to enter the carriage of the stationary train. Unfortunately he wasn’t the fittest of gentlemen, and ended up clinging to a swinging door. The result wasn’t pretty.
With such a high profile death at his grand opening, one would think that improving signalling would be on Stephenson’s mind, but the suggestion of a audible signaling device came a quite a few years later. The suggestion came from a Midlands stationmaster, after a heavy collision with a horse and cart. Apparently the driver had been using a mouthblown horn to try to prevent the accident to no avail. It was serious enough to get the attention of Stephenson, who accepted the suggestion that a horn or whistle, activated by steam should be constructed and fixed to the locomotives.
A musical instrument maker was commissioned to make a steam-powered whistle, then known as a “steam trumpet”. Stephenson made sure that this device was added to all his locomotives, and a set of sounds that endures to this day was born.
Casey Jones, Steamin’ and a Rollin’
Over time the whistle found many forms, from tiny little single-note shriekers (called “banshees” in the United States) to big plain whistles with deeper tones (a deep, plain train whistle is the “hooter” of the Norfolk & Western, used on their A- and Y-class Mallet locomotives). Even more well known were the multi-chime train whistles.
We owe the popularity of the latter to one man in particular, Jonathan Luther Jones, known to history as Casey (pronounced Cayce, after his home town of Cayce, Kentucky). He was a locomotive engineer working the freight trains between Jackson, Tennessee and Water Valley, Mississippi, 120 miles to the south. He was so punctual, it was said that people set their watches by him.
The whistle he became known for Jones was also famous for his notable skill with the train whistle.
He had his boiler-tube chime made from six thin tubes bound together, the shortest being half the length of the longest. Its unique sound involved a long-drawn-out note that began softly, rose and then died away to a whisper, a sound that became his trademark.
Today the sound of a train whistle is one of the most evocative and timeless sounds.
“I’ve always felt that distant train whistles heard in the dead of night are the universe’s way of letting us know the best days are neither ahead nor behind us…they’re happening right now, cradled in the palms of our hands. But that doesn’t change the fact that the whiskey, weed, and romance eventually runs out and the night will soon turn to day.” Dave Matthes,
Retired schoolteacher Brian demonstrates some of the coolest locomotive whistles through the ages.
Back to the Future
We have to leave the last word on this to Doc Emett Brown.
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