Sirens, Klaxons, Alarms and Whistles

Sirens and other “noise makers”

My last post was about the loud noises made by nature. Since it is summer, our part of Canada often gets thunder and lightning storms, hence that post.  Recently we have had several thunder storms, and soon after they start, across the town I hear the wail of sirens from police cars, or ambulances or fire trucks. Even on days without thunder storms, these sirens are a common sound in urban settings. (The Toronto Fire Services report for 2011 states that they made more than 276,000 responses in 2011. That’s close to 600 responses a day! The five boroughs of NYC reported one million responses in 2010. And that is just fire trucks, not police cars or ambulances. You get the idea?)

Sirens are loud noisemakers, primarily used to warn people of an emergency situation or of impending danger. John Robison, a Scottish physicist, invented the first siren in the 1790s. His invention consisted of a stopcock in a pneumatic tube that regularly opened and closed. The sound effect was very similar to the ones we hear today from modern sirens. This site gives you some history of sirens.

In 1819,  Charles Cagniard de la Tour ceated a more effective siren, and is often cited as the inventor of the siren.

You can see pictures of other old style sirens here.


With the militarization of the skies following WWI, networks of air raid sirens were set up in Europe. Similar networks were later established in North America with the rise of the Cold War era. Here is a picture of an early air raid siren in Toronto, Ontario. Next week, when I am in Toronto, I will try to see if it is still there and report back. Stay posted!

And here is a sound clip of an air raid.  Be careful – it is loud!!!

Air raid sirens are seldom active these days.  But here is a link to a history of the Thunderbolt air raid siren that was built in the USA. There is a list of USA towns that had Thunderbolt sirens and some that still have active ones. (Maybe a tour is in order?)

Here is a great site that tells the story of Hanna Bool, a German woman who, on a trip to France, discovers that air raid sirens are still tested monthly. She arranged to have various people who work with sound record the sirens and you can read about this and hear the sirens. In addition, this site provides a great history of sirens.

Today, large, stationary sirens that are active are those used for weather warnings – e.g. tsunamis, tornadoes, etc. Here is a clip of a tornado warning siren from Montana. Here is a clip of the testing of a  warning system in Alabama. And here is a clip of a baseball game in Nebraska where the sirens went off and it was NOT a test!  And here is a clip from Hawai’i of a tsunami warning siren alert.


Of course, as I noted at the beginning of this post, nowadays it is usually sirens on emergency vehicles that we are exposed to. And they are very loud!

In the old days these vehicles had bells mounted on them.

(I assume these bells were NOT as loud as today’s sirens! Although they would have needed to be loud enough to be heard over whatever other noises and sounds there were on the streets.)

Now , electric and electronic sirens have replaced the bells. These sirens are loud! Here is one in LA.  Here is another one, not sure where.

Here is a clip of someone testing out various horns/sirens you can put on a car or motorcycle or even a bicycle!  No longer is that little ding-y sound of the bell on your handle bars enough!

Since the world is so much louder than it used to be, when we are in our cars we try to block out external noise, filling them up with A/C and stereos and cell phones. Which means, apparently, that we often don’t notice emergency vehicles coming up behind us.  (Don’t people still use their rearview mirrors?) So now, emergency vehicles across the continent are loading up with even LOUDER sirens. Here is a piece about ambulances in Denver and their solution to people not moving over on the roads.

Police forces across North America are adding the Rumbler to their arsenal of sirens. Here is a demonstration of the Rumbler in Boston.  And here is a young man explaining how 5000 NYPD cars are going to equipped with Rumbler sirens. And here is an article about the volume of emergency vehicles’ sirens in which he rushes to point out that he is not attacking the emergency responders, but is questioning whether the volume has gone too far.  There are other articles that note that the db level inside the emergency vehicles often supersede established safety guidelines.

There is one other type of siren or klaxon or noise device – the car alarm!  (Watch the movie “Noise” starring Tim Robbins as a New Yorker anti-car alarm activist to see how one person, like Mrs. Rice, responds to noise.) How many of us have been woken up at night by car alarms?  Too many, I think. Or watch this video for a different sense of car alarms. Or this one, to see how comedian Dane Cook responds to car alarms. (Warning: adult content!)


And then there are whistles. There is a long history to whistles. Humans can whistle, with just their lips, and have been doing so for millenia. Birds whistle. The wind whistles through branches and reeds. The very first musical instrument made by a human was a flute, made out of a bird’s wing bone; it is basically a whistle.  And we have had penny whistles and tin whistles and slide whistles for decades.

But once the steam age arrived, we started creating louder whistles such as  train whistles, and tugboat whistles. (It was working with steam that led Robison to make the first siren!) In fact, the world’s first anti-noise organization (“The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise”) was established in New York City by Mrs. Julia Barnett Rice because of whistles. Her house was on the Hudson River, and every day and every night, the tugboats on the Hudson would blast their steam whistles.  She hated this ‘unnecessary’ noise, and started a campaign to stop it. Here is a link to a 1908 article about the organization, which in 1908 had 20,000 members!  (You can read more about her work in George Prochnik’s book “In Pursuit of Silence”, starting on page 207.  It is a fascinating story of how she collected data, and met with civic, state and federal authorities until finally the Board of Steamboat Inspectors in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia announced that “useless and indiscriminate tooting of sirens and steam whistles” was to halt. Those found in violation were fined. (Prochnik, 209)

(Want to know more about whistles? Here is a link to a Whistle Museum – check it out!)


But sirens are not always heard as unnecessary noise. Sirens are also used as musical instruments. Robison’s first siren was described as a musical instrument. Sirens have been used by various composers/musicians:

Edgard Varese: Ameriques –

Varese:  Hyperprism – you can hear the siren/klaxon very early on –

Varese: Ionisation:  you can see the siren/klaxon in the first few seconds:

George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique (1926) –  (siren appears right near the end.)

Henry Fillmore: “The Klaxon: March of the Automobiles” (1929) (I couldn’t find any video 0r sound clip of this composition.)

The Chemical Brothers: “Song to the Siren” –

REO Speedwagon, right at the beginning of “Ridin’ the Storm Out” –


Katherine Shera has written an essay that examines the siren from an anthropological perspective and a ‘soundscape’ perspective. Her purpose is to explore “What exactly is it that makes a siren ‘a sound that matters’? (Schafer 12). How does the sound of siren affect human behavior? How can we understand the rich symbolism the sound has accumulated for us?” I recommend that you read it.


And last, but definitely not least, George Prochnik published an excellent article about sirens in Cabinet magazine in 2011. (If only I had written it!)  Please read it. And again, I  recommend his book, “In Pursuit of Silence”.

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1 Response to Sirens, Klaxons, Alarms and Whistles

  1. Louder and louder, it’s quite a statement on modern life isn’t it? Have you read R. Murray Schafer’s commentary on the same subject? There are some great recordings of sirens left over from the Soviet ear at these links and
    Great post by the way.

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