Steam Trumpets, for Those with Ears to Hear
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1st Corinthians 14:8)
Did you know that the original name for a train whistle was a “steam trumpet”?
Steam locomotive trains blew such signaling instruments to announce their approach, thus warning folks to stay off the tracks, similar to how modern automobile drivers blow their horns to catch the attention of pedestrians and other motorists. Nowadays, the train “whistles” are technically “air horns” (using compressed air bursts to broadcast vibrating sound waves, amplified by a flared horn structure), but their usage in signaling information is still commonly referred to as “whistling” — for those with ears to hear.
The “steam whistle” was (and is) also used to communicate information to railroad workers, because number of blasts, as well as the alternation of long and/or short blasts of the “steam trumpet” (i.e., air whistle,) provide coded information, which is broadcast by whoever pulls the “pull cord” (or lever) that regulates how the air-horn is sounded, according to volume, pitch, sequencing, and length of sounds expressed.
Not all train whistles are the same — some small whistles shriek with shrill single-note blasts (called “banshees”), while others have larger, deeper-toned sounds (called “hooters”). Some even have three-note chimes, including versions with deep-chorded “steamboat minor” long-bell or short-bell sounds.
For example, passenger trains on the Southern Railway used top-mounted long-bell three-chime whistles. Southern Pacific Railroad used a six-chime version. Reading Railroad used “hooter” freight whistles and high-pitched six-chimes passenger whistles. Union Pacific Railway used both three-chimes “steamboat” whistles and five-chimes versions. The B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad used both three-chimes “step-tops” and six-chimes versions. The Pennsylvania Railroad used both high-pitched “Banshees” and medium-pitched three-chimes versions. Other railroads used other air whistle versions.
Of course, as 1st Corinthians 14:8 reminds us, sounds only make sense if sender and receiver are agreed on the “code” used to interpret the message sent. In other words, those not knowing the conventional code, for such “train whistle” sounds, won’t recognize the intended messages projected by train air-horns. (This is true, generally, of all coded information messaging — see “DNA and RNA: Providential Coding to ‘Revere’ God”, Acts & Facts, 40(3):8-9 (March 2011), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/dna-rna-providential-coding-revere/ .)
But, to those who know the “language” of the train whistle, the specific air-horn sounds provided relevant information, matching specific signals listed within the Federal Railroad Administration’s “Final Rule on the Use of Locomotive Horns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings” (see https://www.up.com/aboutup/funstuff/horn_signals/index.htm ).
Yet even if we don’t know the train whistle code, train whistles are pleasant to the ear.
Of course, listening to the air-horn of a train is more fun if you are riding on the train! Riding a steam-powered train, through the countryside, is relaxing and enjoyable — a leisurely adventure in sight, sound, smell, and movement. Whenever I get the opportunity to take a recreational train ride, which occurs not often enow, I try to take it. Sometimes I’m able to do that as part of a family vacation, which multiplies the enjoyment of the train-ride experience.