Thursday, September 11, 2008

Train Horns: An Introduction

By Yves B. Geller

Did you ever wonder where train horns came from when you hear that lonesome sound in the middle of the night? There have been songs written about them, from the mournful sounds they make to the locomotive version of boogie. Although they were preceded by train whistles, the horns caught on and remain the harbinger of the approaching giants made of steel.

Quite a few different companies have manufactured train horns in the past, the most well known of these include:

Gustin Bacon Manufacturing Company - This company was making air horns for trains until World War II.

The American Strombos Company - Strombos' horn was based on a truck horn and was used on early locomotives.

Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO) - This was the first company to make air horns designed specifically for use on trains, starting in 1910.

Other than the companies listed above, there were other companies making train horns. The companies who pulled ahead of the pack and are still in the business today both have their origins in the company once called AMCO.

Robert Swanson is credited with developing the first air horns, five and six-chime type, for trains. Working at Victoria Lumber Manufacturing in the 1920s, this began as a hobby. Partnering with George Challenger, Ernie Canon, and Bill Piercy the company known as AMCO (Airchime Manufacturing Company) was born in 1949. The first multiple chime air horn used on the trains was the H5 developed by Swanson. It was a big hit and the public let it be known that the horn was a very desirable sound.

Choosing two markets for the horn, Nathan of New York for the American licensee and Hyson of New England, the Airchime Company took off thus, the name Nathan Airchime which is seen on the US horns. Undoubtedly the best model horn, which was Swanson?s final creation, is the model K. Dubbed the best liked and used horn it is at present the chief horn used by American railroads. This is the horn that is used to replace Leslie and Prime horns as they become unusable.

The Leslie company was founded in 1930 by John Leslie and was primarily engaged in the production of parts for steam engines, both for trains and ships. The train horns produced by this company were essentially the Swedish Tyfon horn, which the Leslie company bought the rights to. Until 1950 when Airchime horns came to be more popular, the Tyfon A-200 was the most popular train horn on the market.

Train horns have also found popularity with hobbyists, some of whom even install them on their vehicles! Naturally, these horns are too loud to use in traffic, but are great pieces for show and can be shown off at auto shows and the like.

So the next time that you hear a train passing in the night, take a minute and reflect on these horns and how they were created. You'll hear this truly unique sound and maybe, just maybe whisper a quick thank you to those who made this sound possible.

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