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The Sound Of Steam

August 31, 2011
Wetzel Chronicle
A few weeks ago my story about steamboats prompted a call from Dick Smith. He explained that he had in his possession a compact disc with the sounds of steam whistles from boats that traveled the Ohio River. Dick offered me the use of the CD, hoping it might be of interest for a future story.

Before then I really had not given much thought to specific whistle sounds. Boats have used whistles as a way to communicate, as they moved people and commerce over the Ohio River for many years. Each of those boats had their own whistle and most likely were all manufactured the same way.

After listening to the CD, I came to realize no two steam whistles sound exactly alike. The fact is those who listen can tell the difference in tone to identify individual boats on the river.

Steam whistles were first used in the 18th century as a warning device on early steam boilers. The low tech and dependable device made a good way to become aware of a pending problem. In the mid-1830’s, whistles first started making their way onto trains and steam boats as a way to communicate over a given distance. After a non-fatal train and cart collision in England, steam engines were fitted with the first steam trumpets manufactured by a musical instrument maker. Over time the trumpet was replaced by the first steam whistles.

During the 1800’s steam whistles’ design and application became a major way of communications and giving warning across the country. Boats passing at sea or on the nations’ rivers could give an oncoming boat indication of its position and intent. Out at sea the low pitched sound of a fog horn warns a ship’s captain to avoid danger hidden in the mist.

At a Canadian sawmill in 1882 a whistle measuring 20 inches in diameter and over four feet tall was installed to give warning of fire. The 400-pound whistle was fed steam by a four inch pipe. Lighthouses in the 1850’s installed steam whistles to give passing ships warnings on dark nights or when fog hides the danger of shore lines.

Industry has, for over a century, used a steam whistle as a way to begin and end the work shift. The sound of the whistles could be heard throughout industrial plant settings. Whistles were easily maintained and a dependable means of communications. PPG’s Natrium plant in southern Marshall County used such a whistle atop the powerhouse building for its daily shift changes. The original whistle came from a steamboat before going into service at the plant nearly 60 years ago. It was decided the old whistle was to be retired and a new one would replace it. Floyd Eddy, who has worked at the powerhouse, was asked to use his mechanical skills to build a replacement. After studying the old whistle, Eddy was able to build a new one which is in service today. He explained to me the craftsmanship that goes into a (chime) whistle to create the correct sound. Creating a specific sound with good quality meant understanding a little about acoustics, frequency, wave length, pressure, and sound decibels.

Understanding steam and its quality is also an important factor in whistle design. Wet steam decreases the quality of a whistle sound. Dry steam improves the sound of a whistle. Steam often condenses when it isn’t flowing through a pipe, increasing the amount of moisture contained in the steam as it is released. Whistles are sometimes designed to decrease the moisture when steam first crosses the orifice of the whistle. Top quality whistles are often made from bell bronze. The bronze metal is strong and thin, giving the whistle a bright crisp sound. Thicker metal makes the whistle sound duller, less resonant. Most whistles are made up of three main parts: the bell, orifice, and control valve.

Whistles are manufactured with multiple chambers inside the bell, creating a sound that can be tuned. That old whistle that sat atop the powerhouse was composed of three chambers to give it a specific sound tone. Eddy explained like this, “If you play a single note on an instrument it is just a note, play three together and it is a chord, much more pleasing.”  The same principle of combined tones makes the barber shop quartet’s song enjoying to the ear. The combined sounds of different chambers inside the bell are what give the special tone to a steam (chime) whistle.

There are several types of whistles that can be manufactured for different purposes. The most common are the plain whistle, chime whistle, gong, variable pitch whistle, Toroidal, Hemholtz whistle, and organ whistle. If groups of steam whistles are each tuned to a specific note, they can be played together and create a musical instrument known as a calliope. These instruments are closely associated with steam boats and carnivals. When air is used they are more commonly called pipe organs. Each of these instruments produces sweet music to the ears of the listeners.

The sounds from the passing riverboats recorded on the CD along with Eddy’s explanation into the science of whistle design have given me an appreciation of the steam whistle. The days when we could hear the distant steamboat or even the familiar sound of a plant whistle is being lost to changing technology. Ships and boats can pass much more safely in the night with modern radar and satellite communication.

Steam whistles have played an important part in the history of our country. They have given us a unique sound we all can identify. The many boats that once travel the nations’ rivers each had a sound created by a craftsman’s skilled hands. Each whistle he made produced a sound that, if you listened, told a story. Those rich sounds of  history on American water ways are still there, if you listen closely enough. Beginning in the 1830’s those unique sounds have helped to guide river commerce over the inland waterways to build our country.

On occasion Eddy’s whistle still bellows steam to create a distinct American sound. And as the white steam dissipates, that sound echoes through the Ohio Valley much as it has for nearly 200 years. The great river paddle-wheelers are long gone, but the proud legacy of commerce on the Ohio River still lives in the sound of a whistle as herd, Thru the Lens.

Article Photos

Floyd Eddy stands beside the steam whistle on top of PPG’s powerhouse.



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