Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/Whistles Ancient and Modern

First published in French as "Le Sifflet" in 'La Nature, No.735, 2 July 1887.



NO instrument, probably, has been invested with more various forms than the whistle. It would take a volume to present properly all of these forms and their passages from one to another, which I have no intention of doing, I aim only to distinguish a few points that may indicate to others how extensive a field there is into which they may explore if they will. The primary idea of a whistle lies in the making of a column of air to vibrate, in whatever condition. As there is no lack of means or methods for doing this, the infinite diversity of the forms of the apparatus for producing the vibrations and the resultant sounds is a matter of course. The most general form is the human whistle, which one can make sound—after a fashion—without much preliminary training; but many musicians have made themselves masters of its intonations to such a degree that, instead of the usual inharmonious and unmethodical discords, they can render with it the most difficult passages of elaborate musical compositions, I shall not dwell upon the means that may be employed to make the sounds sharper and to modulate their tones. Every one knows what effects are produced by inserting the fore and second fingers so as to turn the tongue slightly back as the column of air passes over it, or by sending the blast over the outside of the bent fingers.

If we seek other primitive whistles, we have them in the hollow-barreled key, the terror of authors and comedians; the famous willow whistle, cut when the twig is most sappy; the green dandelion stem, split along its length; the nut-shell between the fingers; the cherry-stone, which school-boys grind down so patiently on the soles of their shoes and perforate; the buck-horn, and all the other things which we are fond of contriving, in our early youth, with which to split the ears of parents and teachers.

Seeing that so much can be done with such rude means, it is not strange that the whistle was a well-known instrument in antiquity. The old Peruvians were past masters in the fabrication of whistles. They made them in great numbers, of earth, and ornamented with various designs and figures of animals. The porcelain-factory at Sèvres (Fig. 1) possesses two specimens of their workmanship, one of which resembles a nightingale; and, when filled with water, it produces a kind of warbling. There is an instrumental museum at the Paris Conservatory of Music, which is open to the public on Thursday afternoons. It was founded by Clapisson, and in the beginning consisted only of a single collection—of whistles. This was, moreover, a most curious collection, comprising whistles of all ages and all countries, of terra-cotta, copper, ivory, hard stone, etc., some of which were

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Fig. 1.—Ancient Peruvian Earthen Whistles. Nos. 1 and 2, figure of an animal, in face and in profile. No. 3. another form (From specimens in the Sèvres Museum.)

remarkable as specimens of invention and workmanship. Unfortunately, this collection was scattered to the winds at an auction-sale twenty years ago, and the conservatory has not preserved any part of it; but there are still a great many curiosities in the instrumental museum—serpents in the most distressing shapes, horns and trumpets of crystal, flutes of porcelain, fiddles of faience, Alpine horns, a bassoon of such extraordinary adjustment that it is a day's work to dismount it; and many other most curious contrivances for producing melodies and accompaniments.

One of the most simple whistles, most closely approaching the theoretical form, is the American, or secret whistle (Fig. 2), which is composed of a strip of metal bent over, one end of which. A, is cut beveled, and is placed opposite the opening of PSM V33 D183 Secret whistle outer and sectional views.jpgFig. 2.—Secret Whistle. Outer View and Section. the hollow box o o'. Apply the mouth and blow at—no sound is produced; and in this lies the secret of the instrument. But on closing the open ring T with the thumb and forefinger, a vigorous whistling sound is obtained, the intensity of which may be modified by raising or lowering the bevel. A, so as to bring it nearer to or farther away from the box o o'.

A pen and pencil-case whistle, with which dealers in holiday toys have had considerable success, deserves to be mentioned here. It is an ordinary whistle at the end of a tube, in which a solid cylinder is moved so as to modify at the will of the performer the length of the column of vibrating air. Persons skilled in using it are able to play a considerable variety of simple tunes upon it. Among the whistles that give out several notes, we

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Fig. 3.—Commandant's Whistle.

also cite the commandant's whistle (Fig. 3), which, besides its mouth, has two openings that are controlled by the fore and middle fingers. With both holes closed, it gives the note sol; with hole No. 1 open, do; and with both holes open, mi.

We might make a distinct and legitimate study of numerous forms of sounding apparatus, constructed on the theory of the whistle, whose peculiarities consist in the manner in which the air is sent over the tongue, the vibration of which produces the sound. Thus, we have the pedal-horn, and the India-rubber bulb whistle of tramways and omnibuses, the various systems of horns that give notice of the approach of fire-engines, the alarm whistles of steam-engines, "howler" whistles, and locomotive whistles; the last of which are sometimes tuned to nearly a distinct tone for each line. Much that is interesting might also be said concerning the variations in the engineer's whistle for his different calls, upon the signal-man, for the clearance of the track, etc. But this would take us away from our topic.

Modern common whistles are infinite in their variety, and new kinds are appearing every day, as the fancies of amateurs bring them forth. They are made of wood, bark, metal, horn, shell, glass, and even of sugar. While the form of the apparatus and the manner of using it change from time to time, as the fruitful imaginations of fanciers devise new patterns, the principle of the construction is invariable. Some conception of the capabilities in design of the instrument may be gained from a glance at Fig. 4. Among the whistles here represented, we find the scholar whistle (3), the fireman's whistle (5), which gives mi when the upper hole is open, and do when it is closed with the finger; the Belgian whistle (15), of inelegant shape; the square whistle with two holes, giving two notes (7); and the Baduel army regulation whistle (9), Of a quite different type is the Swiss whistle for railroad-station agents (2), in which the column of air is broken upon the summit sphere and a part is swallowed up, while another part is thrown outside. The marine regulation whistle (6) is of a similar structure; but, like the American whistle, there is a secret in manipulating it. In order to produce a sound, the upper end of the pipe and the adjacent sphere must be shut up in the hand. A variety of movements are necessary for the execution of different modulations, which make a whistling-school on the quarter-deck the analogue of the schools of the trumpet and the drum in regiments. There are also whistles with three or four openings, like the horn whistle and the railroad whistle. In the former (13) the extremities A and D may be regarded as mouths, and the sounds are also modified by closing alternately or in succession the openings B and C. In the second (13), by leaving all open, we obtain a quite characteristic mixed and false sound. Special modifications are obtained with the roulette whistle (1) and the bird whistle, with which the songs of various birds are imitated. Fancy has run rife in devising typical whistles, like the dog's-head whistle (10) for hunters, and many-ended whistles, like the army whistle with compass (11), the match-box whistle

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Fig. 4.—Different Kinds of Whistles. 1. Roulette whistle. 2. Swiss railroad-station agent's whistle. 3. Scholar whistle. 4. Another type of the same. 5. Fireman's whistle. 6. Marine regulation whistle. 7. Square whistle with two holes. 8. Round whistle. 9. Army regulation whistle. 10. Dog's-head whistle. 11. Army compass whistle. 12. Whistle and horn of three notes. 13. Railroad whistle. 14. Match-box and compass whistle. 15. Belgian whistle.

(14), cigarette-case whistles, whistling canes, whistling hunting-whips, whistling sleeve-buttons, etc.

Among the matters to be taken into account in the making of whistles are the effect of the length and the diameter of the tube, the width of the month-piece and its length, the size and thickness of the tongue, the diameter of the instrument, the size of the orifice, the nature of the material of which it is composed, etc., variations in any of which produce—sometimes very important—modulations in its tone. Experiments have shown that do and mi in particular have a round, full, well-supported sound, which in the Baduel regulation whistle can be heard for a distance of more than six hundred metres.

Competent observers have asserted that the manner of whistling is not always the same, and that there are some unhappy persons who can not whistle at all. According to these authorities, among whom is M. Baduel, to whistle well it is necessary to pronounce tu . . . tu slowly; then tu . . . tu . . . tu more and more rapidly and quite distinctly, especially taking care not to whistle from the throat. To make the double tongue-stroke, we must say tu . . . du . . . g, du, to give the trill; but we should always begin slowly, and proceed gradually to greater rapidity.

Correspondents of "La Nature" have sent in to it illustrations and descriptions of other whistles than those which M. Gutode describes. One of them is a terra-cotta bird-shaped whistle, somewhat like the Peruvian whistles, which has been recovered from the prehistoric relics near Florence (Fig. 5). The

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Fig. 5.—Earthen Whistle from near Florence.

sound is produced by blowing into the bird's beak. Another, an extremely simple form, is used by the foremen in the spinneries of northern Europe, to direct the changing of the bobbins on the looms. It is made of tin (Fig. 6), and gives out a sound strong enough, to overcome all the other noises in the shop, while it is also susceptible of musical modulations. But there is a special art in sounding it. The tongue must be brought up to the hole in the upper blade without stopping it, and the air must be projected simultaneously through both holes, so as to

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Fig. 6.—Spinner's Whistle. Fig. 7.—How the Spinner's Whistle is used.

vibrate in the bent-over part (Fig. 7). After a few efforts, sounds of astonishing power can be produced on this instrument.

Every boy knows how to make a willow whistle; or he may use lilac or any of several other woods when in the sap. Taking a branch about the size of his little finger, he cuts a ring in the bark down to the wood. Then, having moistened the bark in his

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Fig. 8.—Wooden Whistle.

mouth, he beats it, holding it on his knee, with the handle of his knife, till it will slide on the stick. Holding the lower part of the branch in his left hand, with his right hand he twists the loosened slip of bark and pulls it off in a single piece, forming a hollow cylinder, perhaps an inch long. He then slips the ring back over the stick as in A (Fig. 8), or he may trim the stick and cylinder as in B or C, previous to readjusting them, to form the shape almost universally in use.

Among the latest devices in the way of whistles are the curious chemical toys made with picrate of potash. When the whistling rockets and fire-pieces first appeared, the whistling was commonly supposed to be produced in the same way as in ordinary whistles, by the air-movements produced by their rapid motion. This is, however, not so. The operation is not at all like that of an air-whistle, but the production of the sound is owing to the peculiar property of picrate of potash of whistling when it is burned. This effect is heard very clearly with that salt when compressed in a tube, and the sonority may be augmented by the addition of various substances. Such a composition may be formed, with no other danger than usually attends the manipulation of explosives, by triturating a mixture of fifteen parts of picrate of potash and one part of Judæan bitumen. PSM V33 D188 Picrate of potash whistle.jpgFig. 9—Picrate of Potash Whistle. a, the whistling composition; b, rocket with whistle attached. It is then charged into a pasteboard tube a little less than a half-inch in its interior diameter, and some two and a half inches long (Fig. 9). The tube is closed at one end by a plug of closely tamped clay. The composition is introduced in small charges evenly compressed, till the tube is filled to within about three quarters of an inch of the open end. The whistle may be wired upon the cartridge of a rocket, when it should be furnished with a cap penetrated by a quick match, which, entering the picrated composition, is also inserted into the throat of the rocket, so that the two fire-works shall be inflamed at the same time. The sound of these whistles is sharp at first, and passes gradually, as the tube is emptied of its contents, to a grave tone. By combining the whistles with various devices of fire-works, curious effects are produced, in accordance with which expressive descriptive names have been given to the artifices.

When the picrate whistles were first exhibited at Havre, on the occasion of the Fête nationale, the spectators, irritated at the strident noise they made, and mistaking its origin, exclaimed: "Down with the whistling fellows! duck them!" The enjoyment of the festival was much enhanced when the joke was explained.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.