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Whistle chords

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    Whistle chords

    Just got through reading the extra coverage of the S&D Whistle Blow of May 1, 1965, reprinted in the June 2010 issue of the REFLECTOR. So here's a question for you whistle and signaling aficionados among us: what chords were most favored for steamboat whistles?

    Obviously there were single chime whistles, but for boats with three or more bells or chimes, which chords held sway? Were certain sonorities considered indicative of larger or more lavish vessels?

    On railroads, it seems that M6 (think on your keyboard: E-G-A-C) chords were popular. I've heard several steamboat whistles with first- and second-inversion chords (E-G-C, G-C-E), some with sevenths (C-E-Bb), and even some with tritones (C-F#) and augmented chords (C-E-G#).

    Hey Jonathan,

    In many, many early whistle examples it seems that the builders took a piece of this and a piece of that and put them together with little concern for any chords. Once whistle production became big business the companies that put the whistles together started to go more for sound quality. Some of the old catalogs had some great verbage about their products. Lunkenheimer made a lot of whistles, most famous are those big diameter 3 chimers like those on the DQ and DK, but they also made 3 bell chimes like the one on the Natchez. If they made whistles the whistles ended up on boats. This list is by no means complete but Lunkenheimer, Crosby, Buckeye, Lonergan, Fitts, Westinghouse, Powell, Penberthy, etc. etc. etc. all had whistles on boats. In my humble opinion some of the most unique in design also have the most powerful voice. The Belle of Louisville's whistle remains my favorite and it was likley put together in a boat builder machine shop by design. There is a technical side to steam whistles and I never really got into that side of it, always been more interested in hearing them then how you get different notes out of them. But to answer your question, yes the company who produced whistle generally used chords for their production whistles.

    I am sure others will respond on the more technical side of this.



      At the Tell City whistle blow we recorded the sizes of the whistles, analyzed the tones and taped the sounds. There was absolutely no pattern to the chords or the number of notes.

      The Belle of Louisville's whistles are all exactly alike in construction and are made of cast iron, leading to the conclusion that they were made as a set by one manufacturer. While Paul Underwood was master he wanted to scrap it and install a finer whistle. He defined high and low pitches as "fine" and "coarse". The idea sort of ebbed away, thanks be to everything that is holy.

      One time the Coast Guard, in its benevolent dictatorship, proposed that large boats have bass whistles or horns ranking by key and length to high-pitched tweeters on smaller boats, the idea being to give navigators an idea of the sizes of vessels by sound. It was pointed to to them that on the Mississippi and its tributaries the size of the boat varies at every port (a towboat with barges, under the rules, is considered to be one vessel). In that case the towboat would have to have a different whistle every time it picked up or delivered a barge. They asked for the opinions of mariners for the proposed rule. I sent them a cartoon of a pilot tromboning his way down the river. That notion also died. There is nothing like ridicule to get under an bureaucrat's skin!