When Did Air Horns Become a Thing?

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When Did Air Horns Become a Thing?
Posted by greatscottk on Saturday, April 20, 2019 10:10 AM

I'm looking into the history of air horns for a research project and can't find much info.

Does anybody know when the air horn was first invented and/or when it started showing up on trains?

I know the 6-bell horn was patented in 1949, but I also know that single air horns were around for years before that.

Any insight and/or a point in a good direction would be much appreciated.

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Posted by gmpullman on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 4:20 PM


The "when" seems to be in the early 1930s. They started showing up on interurbans and gas-electric motorcars in early days.

I presume you have been to some of the usual Air Horn sites?


Ed Kaspriski passed away in February, and had a very large collection and a decent, informative site. Copy or download what you can as there's no telling how long the site will be available:


This site has a little more history and background:


Here's a page from my 1971 Locomotive Cyclopedia:

 Leslie_Supertyfon by Edmund, on Flickr

 Leslie_Supertyfon-a by Edmund, on Flickr

I know one of the original Leslie A-200s in Bronze were applied to the PRR GG1, NYC Niagaras and many of the SP Cab Forwards and others.

Westinghouse was an early supplier but didn't persue the market aggressively:

 Whistle by Edmund, on Flickr

The above a page from the 1941 Locomotive Builder's Cyclopedia.

As I turn up more I'll post updates.

Good Luck, Ed


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Posted by MidlandMike on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 9:29 PM

LIRR version of the MP-54 had air whistles.  They started building them in 1909.  Not sure if the air whistles were original equipment.

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Posted by NDG on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 2:46 AM
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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 9:24 AM

And this, with more details for the technically inclined:


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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 9:42 AM

On the subject of air horns, we should never forget the great contribution that Canadian Bob Swanson made to the "enjoyment of necessity" by making multiple-chime horns.  (There were earlier uses of chime horns, notably on DL&W in the early Thirties, but most early diesels used rather ordinary single-note horns.)

Notably, the original 'purpose' of the chime horns was marine, to provide an easier sense of 'echolocation' in fog as the different notes echoed off the features of a shoreline.  I do not know the extent to which 'aesthetics' came into the sales pitch for Airchime Ltd. horns (but the director of the Marine Corps band after John Philip Sousa consulted on the chord the early horns would blow...)

There is a sort of old wives' tale about the early adoption of these horns in Canada being driven by moose ... more specifically by lovesick moose responding to the 'mating call' of those pathetic early single-note diesel horns and blundering onto the track to cause trouble.  Alas! this is nothing but a kind of urban legend.  Here is a note from someone who knew Bob Swanson:

"When CP's Vancouver Island subsidiary E&N dieselised, they used CLC/Baldwin road switchers which came from the factory in Kingston ON. with a single chime "blat" horn. CP's early MLW's had the same horn. One day there was a truck/train collision at a crossing on the E&N. There were no injuries, but the truck and locomotives were damaged. Since it was the logging truck driver's fault, the railroad sued him for damages to the crossing and locomotives.

"The truck driver successfully argued in Court that he saw the train approaching, but when he heard the "blat" horn, he assumed he was going to be struck from behind by a runaway logging truck, which had "blat" horns also. He took his chances with the train rather than be struck from behind. He won the case.

"CP was so mad at losing the case that they contacted Bob Swanson and 'Air Chime' to make a locomotive whistle than could not be mistaken for a truck horn.

"Bob was quite the storyteller, and was very dedicated to his craft. He actually supplied slightly different tuning to Amtrak, BC Rail and others so that their "Air Chimes" were unique.

"He told me that the "Moose" story was a sanitised version which CP published in their employee magazine "Spanner".

"He travelled the world selling his air horns.He was unsuccessfull in getting the British to adopt the "loud voice" horns of North America, instead they use much smaller and quieter two tones. He was a Brit himself from Manchester, and argued long and hard with the locomotive manufacturers to use his horns to no avail. His struggles paid off in a way because the Australians adopted North American style horns partly on his advice and experience in Britain. His company still sells horns and is based in Vancouver BC.

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Posted by Deggesty on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 10:33 AM

"...those pathetic early single-note diesel horns...." 

I am reminded of hearing the Georgia's air horns when I lived about a mile from the track going though Decatur. I wondered WHY the road used such.



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