Rim-blown whistles are widely used for many purposes, chiefly of course for signalling. Their potential is considerably enhanced by the introduction of a fingerhole in or near the lower end, for with two pitches many instructions can be given, even though, as Boy Scouts were instructed in my youth, one note suffices for the Morse code. My own earliest whistle came from Akko (Acre) in northern Israel and analysis showed the instrument to be of brass: %Iron 0.4, Nickel <0.1, Copper 67.8, Zinc 28.1, Arsenic 0.2, Lead 1.7, Silver <0.1, Tin 1.5, Antimony 0.1. Unfortunately this mixture was used for many centuries, so dating can be no more precise than from Roman to Crusader. It is most likely to have been a military or naval instrument, for warfare was endemic in that area and Acre was a seaport as well as a garrison town throughout that period and before. The bottom end is closed, and with one fingerhole near the foot, it can produce much more than its basic two pitches by altering the embouchure, protruding the lip over more or less of the open end and so changing the area of that open hole, thus producing glissandos to higher or lower pitches. It has a lug at the back with a hole in it for suspension.
Organologically similar are whistles from Africa, for example one of bronze or brass from Ghana and one the tip of an antelope horn with a wax head in which are embedded tiny red and mauve beads in linear patterns, from the Batanga people in the Kariba area of Zimbabwe. The former is horn-shape with a suspension ring on the convex side, and is of unknown purpose, the latter was said to be used at funerals. Each has a small fingerhole in the distal end.
Some other African whistles, mostly of horn, are known as hunting whistles. Kirby describes and illustrates a number as does Söderberg, indicating that they are used everywhere from the lower Congo southwards.
Somewhat more elaborate are the dagger-shaped whistles from the Congo and the somewhat anthropomorphic whistles from further west. These usually have three fingerholes, one at the end of the bulge on each side of the swellings of the former or at the elbow of the akimbo arms of the latter, and the third at the tip. The embouchure of the former is at the base of two projecting horns and of the latter in a recess of the somewhat phallic head. It is of the dagger-shaped that some are said to have been used as hunting whistles and others as melodic instruments among the pygmies of the same area.
There are many more of all the above and of other shapes in many collections – Laurenty illustrates some hundreds from Congo and he and that area are not alone in Africa and elsewhere.
Several of these whistles, both those where one blows between the projecting horns and those like the Batanga whistle, where the blowing edge is slightly dipped, are verging towards the notch whistle, but those with an actual notch seem to be fairly rare. Jaguar bone notch whistles, often several strung on a cord, are used in South America especially in Brazil, with shallow rectangular notches. V-notch whistles appear in much of Africa.
Transversely-blown whistles seem not to exist at all – certainly I have never seen any. The nearest that I have met are those with an off-centre embouchure, when by closing each end alternately or together a small range of notes can be obtained, but these count as flutes, even when they are only three or four inches long.
The form that is by far the most widely distributed is, as one would expect, the duct-blown whistle, for with this one only has to put it in the mouth and blow, without any of the problems of, frequently in haste or emergency, trying to get the blowing angle correct.
Duct whistles take many forms, the commonest being either the tubular, a straight tube with a duct in the head or a tapering tube, wider at the head and narrower at the foot, or the snail shape as with the well-known Acme Thunderer, the commonest referee’s whistle.
Any of them, but especially the snail-shape, may have a ‘pea’ inside. Traditionally, in Britain at least, this was indeed a pea, inserted through the mouth while fresh and thus compressible. Nowadays a cork ball is more common, for cork, after soaking or chewing, can also be compressed. Once dried it regains its natural shape and can no longer fall out through the mouth. This ‘pea’ imparts a rolling quality to the sound which seems to make it carry better through ambient noise, such as that of a football crowd.
One of the best-known tubular types is the police whistle. I have seen many of these, made of brass, plated or plain, or of other metals, with different stamps on the side such The Metropolitan, Garde Republicaine, Boy Scout, and so on. Silver, or maybe silver-plated, are common as army officers’ whistles, occasionally mounted on the top of a swagger-stick, but more usually on a lanyard, carried in one of the breast pockets of the uniform. These, also are sometimes tapering, rather than a straight tube. Others are made of wood, I suspect often as children’s toys, and all are stopped at the lower end.
Police whistles are usually duplex, two separate D-shaped tubes side by side within the one tubular casing, each with its own mouth, and one of the tubes always slightly shorter than the other, for the slightly different length produce two slightly different pitches. The vibration between the two, usually around five or six Hz, considerably amplifies the sound. One unusual example in my own collection is triplex, the usual duplex police whistle at one end, and a referee’s pea whistle, with an expanding tube instead of the snail, at the other. One wonders whether this was designed for a referee at football matches between two police teams! Or perhaps one end was blown to stop playing after a foul and the other to call the police to subdue the ensuing riot.
Other tubular shapes may be rectangular, either as dog whistles with a single fingerhole, or as toys, such as the commonly seen train whistle with two or even three bores side by side within the body – these are often seen in souvenir shops at historic railway sites.
Rectangular tube duct-whistles of wood were often used by the peoples of the North-West Coast of Canada. These are made of two pieces of wood, split and hollowed and then reunited. I was lucky to obtain one each of the three main types: the single, the double with two bodies side by side, and the duplex, two bores within the one body, front and back, this one made of three pieces of wood, a central block and another piece on each side.
In the nineteenth century babies’ whistles were often made for children, a very short tubular whistle in the top of a rattle. Many of those preserved in collections were made of silver, which is why they survive, for those of less precious materials would have been broken or discarded as the baby became a child. I assume that such would be prohibited today, lest the babies poked their eyes out!
I mentioned the army officer’s whistle above. The naval whistle was very different. The bo’sun’s (boatswain’s) call has a long tubular duct (the gun, to use British naval parlance) leading to the mouth which is set immediately above a hollow ball, with a flat metal keel holding the two together. By holding the ball within the palm of the hand, moving the fingers and the upper part of the palm over the ball interrupts the air stream and produces a wide variation of pitch for the different pipes, as the signals are called. The call is of unknown antiquity. It certainly dates back to the sixteenth century, for a number were found in Henry VIII’s warship, The Mary Rose, and others have been found in wrecks of the Spanish Armada of 1588. Some of those in the Mary Rose were very small, presumed to have been the badges of high officers, others were of normal size, though even the smallest ones can be blown, though their sound might only be audible to dogs and bats. Patterns vary only slightly. The British one, today, has a curved gun, as the tube is called, whereas the Mary Rose and the modern US naval ones have a straight gun. The British are usually silver-coloured (often of real silver), whereas the Dutch seem usually to have been copper. Those small ones for officers’ badges were sometimes of gold but otherwise almost always of silver. The bo’sun’s call is unique in that the variations of pitch are controlled by movement of the fingers affecting the escaped air outside the instrument rather than by altering the length or shape of the internal air column by opening fingerholes or closing the end. The bo’sun was the equivalent of the major-domo of a palace or household – he was responsible for all the working of the ship under the orders of the officers and so his signals were the instructions for all that was to be done on board.
The one great advantage of the whistle, one which explains its worldwide use, is that its sound is louder, and can be better heard through ambient noise and further away, than that produced by the human lips.
© Jeremy Montagu, 2018